The Way We Live Now


Heading toward a taxi line at National Airport, surrounded by people holding their ears and mumbling to themselves -- the cellular telephone crowd -- I asked a friend, a high-ranking political appointee in the Clinton administration, whether he was keeping a diary, a journal of the most exciting days of his life.

"No," he said. "I wish I could, but it's just too dangerous."

Dangerous? Although there was nothing controversial about his work, he said, he had already been hit with two Freedom of Information Act demands for office records, including datebooks, telephone logs -- which he had -- and any diaries or journals -- which, luckily, he did not.

So, if you want to keep a diary while in government service, as did, say, John Quincy Adams and George Kennan, you must do so knowing it might end up on national television, as will the journals of Sen. Robert Packwood and of the current deputy secretary of the treasury, Roger Altman, and his assistants and associates.

My informant, who has some experience now as an interviewee, also said he realizes that there is no such thing as "off-the-record." He said that when reporters came to interview him, one of their standard probing techniques was to say, "Well, so-and-so told me off-the-record that . . ." He was surprised by that. I was not, having done it many times myself.

Somewhere along the lines of new laws, new technology and tabloidized television and press, privacy has disappeared as a fundamental right in our society. In America, thoughts cannot be kept secret if they have once been verbalized or written down. Fact or fantasy, there is risk (or opportunity) that anything from musings to theorems will surface in court or on Court TV, in the National Enquirer, on Oprah or Geraldo, or in Bob Woodward's next book.

No man is a hero to his valet, and that is doubly true now that there is a five-figure market for the valet's peeking. And no words are protected anymore, particularly if they are carried through the air between wireless or cellular telephones.

Telephone eavesdropping, standard now all over the country, was the way the current national insanity began when police electronically located the briefly vanished O.J. Simpson as he called his mother on the cellular phone in the now-famous white Bronco.

The alleged killers of Michael Jordan's father were tracked down in North Carolina by a scan of cellular telephone records.

In Virginia, the political feud between Sen. Charles Robb and former Gov. Douglas Wilder became public when Mr. Wilder was foolish enough to rattle on about the vices of his adversary on the phone in his limousine.

Half the households in the country now have wireless telephones of one sort or another. That means that half the homes in America are, in effect, small radio stations -- if anyone out there is inclined to listen to kitchen or bedroom broadcasts. Ten percent of Americans, they say, now have cellular telephones, which function not only as mobile radio broadcasters but as locating devices as well.

Also, in electronic America, no worker is safe from hidden video cameras in offices and factories, as no bank robber or shoplifter is safe from roving-eyed surveillance cameras. And no one who works on a computer knows whether or not the boss is electronically eavesdropping on another screen somewhere in the same building. A magazine called Mac World, for users of Apple computers, has somehow concluded that 21.6 percent of employers scan the E-mail and other computer filings of employees.

Privacy? There are laws, of course, but the volume (and acceptability) of electronic spying makes them unenforceable. The country is wired -- without wires. For those old enough to remember such things, the United States has become one big party line -- with a president, who is nothing if not a modern man, comfortable going on television and answering questions about what kind of underwear he prefers.

What to do? Tom Kneitel, editor of Popular Communications, said: "I wouldn't say anything on a telephone that I wouldn't say in a crowded elevator. I wouldn't talk to a doctor, a lawyer, an accountant or a banker on a wireless phone."

Here in Washington, Michael Bozza of the Justice Department's criminal division offers this advice: "You must learn to talk like drug dealers."

Thanks. Is this a great country or what?

Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.

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