Amidst all the proper concern about the use of technology in breaches of privacy, it is easy to overlook the ease with which we can give away information by more everyday means. Some examples illustrate what I mean.
My railway carriage this morning had more than its usual quota of people braying into their phones whilst the rest of the carriage tried to sleep or, in my case, to write an article. One such caller was involved in some capacity in litigation involving a departed employee – it seems that the company has a better case than it originally thought because of newly-found evidence about the ex-employee’s preparations to set up a competing business whilst he was still employed by the company. The speaker had not yet been able to find out more because he had not been sent the backup tapes for a particular custodian – presumably the ex-employee in question. A name was mentioned which I did not, alas, write down; if I had recorded it, I would be happy to repeat it here.
On the way back, I heard a businessmen analysing the faults of his staff – Tom is a good salesman apparently but we just have to watch what he sells, and Chris’s management style also needs to be watched. Someone, whose name I did not catch, “thinks we are duplicating management”. DWP (presumably the Department of Work and Pensions) comes into the story somewhere.
The first story obviously caught my attention because of its subject-matter. The second was of no interest to me, but I am not good at filtering out distraction and deeply resent the loss of good working time whilst these people fill the airwaves with their own business. It ceases to be their own business anyway once half a railway carriage has heard it; I owe them no duty of confidence and can hardly be described as eavesdropping. Perhaps I will start publishing interesting titbits to see if I can silence the chatterers on the line between Oxford and Paddington.
The other story comes from current politics and involves the decidedly low-tech skill of lip-reading. The context, for those not up with British politics, is the election to replace the dysfunctional Gordon Brown as the leader of the Labour Party. The two main contenders were the thoughtful and impressive (if slightly strange) former Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, and his younger brother Ed Miliband. Mili E won it by the narrowest of margins, largely thanks to the votes of the unions who hope that “Red Ed” will tackle the deficit by screwing the private sector and the middle classes, leaving the bloated public sector to shuffle its paper, push its pens and pay its union dues. Mili E, in other words, is a great choice to satisfy the faithful who will vote Labour anyway, but not the man to win back the 5 million voters who deserted Labour at the last election.
That much is background. Ed Miliband’s approach seems to be repudiate pretty well everything Labour did in government, and in particular the war in Iraq – he is fortified in this stance by the fact that he was not an MP when the decision was made. Not everyone joined in the applause for his rabble-rousing speech about this, and his brother was caught saying to former Deputy Leader Harriet Harman “You voted for it, why are you clapping?”. Her answer, according to the lip-reader, was “I’m clapping because he is the leader. I’m supporting him.”
It does not really matter whether you approve or not of this level of scrutiny – so far as I am concerned, Labour in government was so contemptuous of private rights and civil liberties that its ex-government members deserve all they get. The point is that privacy can be conceded as well as breached, and that the old ways are as effective as the new ones at revealing our secrets.
This is not the first time that Hattie Harridan has starred in a public video which revealed more than she might have hoped. You do not need a lip-reader to decipher the reaction of the girl behind Harman at the moment when Harman’s election as Deputy Leader was announced in 2007:
Lest you think that I stray too far from my main subject here, there is for those with long memories a link between Harriet Harman and discovery which goes back to 1983. Harman disclosed to a journalist some Home Office documents which had come into her hands in her capacity as a solicitor and which were subject to the usual implied undertaking as to confidentiality. The House of Lords judgment refusing her appeal against the finding of civil contempt is here. If she is happy to give away other people’s secrets, we cannot have too much sympathy for her when her own are published.