By Ruth Bass, Special to The Eagle
Our phone was a museum piece when we first moved to Richmond. It had a crank, and a proper twist brought a human voice to help make our calls. It wasn’t the 19th century -- it was 1960. In a very short time, as our builder succeeded in substituting houses for chickens on his farm, we were enjoying a nine-party line. Sharing with eight other households was both annoying and amazing.
We supposedly only answered when we heard one long ring and two short. But we suspected that some people picked up the phone every time and had a little listen-in. And while they denied it vehemently, the operators listened, too. Now and then, they were caught.
Call waiting and messaging weren’t even in the glimmer phase in those days. But imagine my husband’s surprise one morning when I failed to answer the phone and the operator suddenly said, "She’s at Marge’s for coffee." So much for "We never listen in." But instead of resenting the inevitable, we mostly enjoyed the private secretary service.
What we do resent these days is the idea that our government is listening in. The fact that technology makes that a possibility should not make it inevitable -- no more than Richmond’s sometimes lonely operators should have shared our phone calls. At least they had no ulterior motives. They did not suspect us of anything. And while they could have gathered a little info for gossiping, they were more likely to enjoy what they knew and not share it.
Once we went to a private line, we automatically assumed we were alone on the line. We heard no clicks, we were aware people have to say if they’re recording your phone call. Some companies duly give the routine warning that a call may be "monitored for quality purposes," whatever that means.
Wiretapping without jumping through the proper legal hoops has long been a filthy business, scorned by our democracy and with results that time after time have been dumped overboard by courts. Here’s the question that comes with knowledge of all this high-tech, secretive spying on not only Americans but our allies abroad: Is Edward Snowden a saint or a sinner, a whistleblower or a felon? Is he to be stamped with a scarlet letter or admired for letting us know that Big Brother is alive, well and gathering up our supposedly private phone calls?
Increasingly sophisticated technology sometimes means that when something is possible, someone pushed to use it. It’s the same kind of danger we encounter with the military. Once a professional is confronted with a new military toy, he or she yearns to use it. Consider, for instance, the drone -- sophisticated and dismayingly irresistible.
The government forces banks and corporations to mail out stacks of letters every year so customers will know what they do with what they know about us. Doctors do it, schools have gotten into fights over students’ rights to privacy. But no one told us our democratic, free country was stomping on our right to privacy without letting us know their rules. Apparently rules don’t exist in this realm. (Imagine spending our tax money storing our phone laments about how heavy the Mark Twain autobiography is, or whether the apples will stay crisp after the next frost. We talk about big things on our phones.)
Hello, Congress. Let’s cut that surveillance budget in favor of feeding the hungry. The Patriot Act enabled this surveillance, and Edward Snowden made us think about it. However we label him, we wonder why the CIA and National Security Agency are so afraid of us. They should fear their fear. And everyone should Google Bluffdale, Utah, and read about that town’s new-found prosperity. Meanwhile, we may be on a nine-party line again.