September 26, 2006


We, as Americans, are kind of misunderstood on the world stage, I think. The world thinks that we are nasty imperialists, bent on spreading our revolution by hook or by crook throughout the world. Maybe. I personally think that the world would be a better place for it but you can't make a retarded mule into a race horse, no matter what kind of saddle you put on him. That's all an aside. No, I think that the world misapprehends our nature. We, as Americans, are more likely to tend towards the isolationist than the imperialist. We prefer, as we showed in the aftermath of WW I, to withdraw into the comfort of our vast nation and let the rest of the world go on its merry way.

Look at some of our national icons for illustration. The lonely rancher, battling against the weather and the odds. Ralph Waldo Emerson Thoureau*, in splendid isolation up on Walden Pond (a lovely place to visit, by the way). The heroic sea captains, cut off from civilization. Astronauts, can't get any more away from it all than that. The list goes on and includes individuals doing individual things.

No, we like our privacy. Even Alexis de Tocqueville talked about our tendency to withdraw from society and the only thing that could bring us out was our self interest properly understood when we would join together into voluntary association in order to better govern ourselves or accomplish a limited task.

But privacy is something that cannot really be taken for granted. I am, sad to say, not a scholar of privacy rights. I am not even sure I understand anymore what privacy really means. If it means a right to go unmolested in your own home, absent a compelling reason or showing by the government, then I understand that. If it extends to your car, as an extension of your domicile, than I understand that perhaps a little less well. Does it extend to your communications? Sort of, I suppose. I guess it extends to those communications in which you have a reasonable expectation of privacy.

Only, how reasonable is the expectation? No one, for instance, expects that a post card is private. Everyone expects that a private letter or a telephone conversation on a land line will remain private, again without a compelling reason otherwise. As for the rest, it becomes a bit more opaque.

Unless, of course, you serve on a corporate board. Or, to digress for a second, you enter a store which posts a sign that all persons entering consent to search of their bags. I hate that one, personally, and do not know what the Constitutional staus of such a warning is. I was never much of a Constitutional scholar in law school, I confess.

But back to the board. Let's say you serve on a board. Beware the phone taps. It looks like a lot of people over at Hewlett Packard are going to get into major trouble for tapping the phone lines of their board members to try to discover who was leaking information to the press. Interestingly enough, though, the stock price has remained flat during this period. That signals that no one in the market seems to care and that you can expect this not to touch HP's strong profits or results.

Let's say you serve on a board and are tempted to do this, to tap phones and spy on people. Let me make it easy for you to figure out whether you should do this or not. And I have to make it easy, since I have already explained that I am no Constitutional scholar. If you are thinking about invading the opaque area of another person's privacy, take the Talking Heads test. Ask yourself, seeking guidance from the masters, do I pass the following test:

We got computers, we're tapping phone lines I know that ain't allowed

(Source: Life During Wartime)

If the Talking Heads tell you that it ain't allowed, then you should know that your contemplated actions will most likely not pass Constitutional muster. And if you are thinking of using a computer while doing so, well, that ain't allowed either.

I hope that this helps clear up some fundamental misunderstandings about America and your right to privacy as an American (assuming you, gentle reader, are an American).

If you are not an American, by the way, and, say, you are an Italian. Well, don't worry about the Talking Head test because you have no right to privacy at all while conducting private conversations, as the recent scandal with Telecom Italia has shown:

On Friday September 22nd, as details emerged of the scope of an alleged espionage operation run from inside Telecom Italia (TI), the country’s cabinet approved a decree to limit the practice.

* * *

The targets of the spying operation apparently included many of Italy’s elite, including leading businessmen, bankers, sports figures, celebrities and politicians. But the true extent may never be known. According to reports, most of the records were destroyed after the information had been passed on.

Up to 500 people are reported to have been involved in the snooping, which began in 1997 according to investigators. But what was it all for? The investigators claim to have established links between the TI operation, a private security firm whose boss was a friend of Mr Tavaroli and the state intelligence apparatus, where he also had acquaintances. Some of the spying was done for clients of the security firm and some at the request of the government's own spies.

From the Economist, which is subscription only, so no link.

* Thanks to Tuning Spork for the kind correction.

Posted by Random Penseur at September 26, 2006 10:51 AM | TrackBack

About the isolationist bit - isn't that one of the reasons why all these different groups came to America (ok, the first groups, like the pilgrims, not so much the melting pot people later) in the first place? So they could do their own thing? Have their own privacy?

Living in Europe and hearing the constant cracks against the US, I sometimes wonder if there weren't enough times that the US could have left things alone. In Europe, the US is often seen as a big bully ...

Posted by: Hannah at September 27, 2006 01:01 AM

wonder if there weren't enough times that the US could have left things alone

In the past when we did that, the euros managed to manufacture a few nasty world wars when we had our backs turned ;->

Posted by: Purple Avenger at September 27, 2006 11:46 AM

If I'm not mistaken, phone conversations in MS can be recorded as long as one party knows of the recording.

I was in a business meeting one time where my bosses recorded the phone conversation without informing the other party. To this day, I have zero respect for any of them.

Posted by: Howard at September 27, 2006 03:50 PM

Just as an aside, it was Thoureau who went to Walden Pond, not Emerson.

Posted by: Tuning Spork at September 27, 2006 03:54 PM

D'oh! I knew that, TS, really, I did. Thanks for pointing out the mistake. I will correct it immediately.

Posted by: rp at September 28, 2006 08:26 AM

Since that HP story came out, I've wondered more about the morality on display than the privacy violations. I'll admit that in some ways this means that I'm taking the privacy violations for granted, but still...I don't know that that's the interesting story here. Here you have a board member/leaker who claimed they were leaking information because they were concerned about the direction the board was taking HP, when they knew the information was confidential and would have very serious ramifications on the stock price. THEN you have the search for the leaker, and all the illegality therein. In an effort to highlight the wrongdoing of the latter, it seems as if the former has been pushed aside---or that it was excusable simply under the impression that all whistleblowers are good.

I find it curious, to say the least. ;)

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