Boldface Names, Telltale Texts

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The Philadelphia Inquirer's John Timpane reflects on celebrities, cell phones, and indiscretion:

Technology has changed the nature of the illicit affair. It's astonishing, frankly, that people in the public eye would ever commit their passions to cyberspace at all, ever again, in light of what has happened with e-mails and text messages lately.

Are the alleged affairs of Tiger Woods and other celebrities and politicians only the latest instances of perennial, imperious passion? Are cell phone just the latest avatars of the paper phone bills of a half-century ago that have driven key episodes of Mad Men?

My friend James Katz, professor and director of the Center for Mobile Communication Studies at Rutgers University, observes that "people -- especially when deeply engaged -- simply aren't aware of background processes in their electronic technology . . . or for that matter, in their brains." {sorry for this omission and other initial typos -- ET]

Of course there's another explanation, that the possibility of discovery is part of the thrill, not that people necessarily want to get caught but that risk is a feature as much as a bug. And an encrypted phone would only fuel the suspicions of an already troubled partner.

The solution for some of the privacy activists I've met is to make strong encryption a norm. Until it is, those who encrypt messages might well be attracting the kind of government scrutiny to which they object so strongly -- what do they have to hide, anyway? But if almost everybody encrypts e-mail, text messages, and other information, the stigma is gone -- in domestic situations, too.

I'm doubt that revelations will lead soon to any real change. Electronic device makers don't want to deter sales with required extra security procedures. Even many corporations seem to be more productivity- and less protection-oriented than they once were. Wired recently quoted one of them former CIO in an article, "Hacker Says iPhone 3GS Encryption Is 'Useless' for Businesses":

"Your organization has to be culturally ready to accept a certain degree of risk," . . . ."I can say we've secured everything as tight as a button, but that won't be true.... Our culture is such that our general manager is saying, 'I'm willing to take the risk for the value of the applications.'"

Governments everywhere demand the ability to Hoover (in every sense) files, recent campaign rhetoric to the contrary. And new generations of cell phone users seem to be no more discreet than their elders. Has our behavior been changed less than we suppose by new communication modes? And is it easier to catch a careless cheater but harder to detect a clever one?

(Photo: Quinn Rooney/Getty Images)


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Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.

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