The recent revelations regarding the outrageous escapades of certain News Corp. subsidiaries, and the employees thereof, have been so scandalous as to capture and dominate the attention of the worldwide media for several weeks. For once, most Americans began to follow business news with the obsessive fascination normally accorded “Jersey Shore” and “Keeping Up with the Kardashians.”
This story has everything: the resignations and apparent bribery of high Scotland Yard officials; the arrest of very prominent editors and “journalists”; and the amazingly brazen invasion of the privacy of the Prime Minister of England. But it doesn’t just involve prominent names like David Cameron or Gordon Brown or even Rupert Murdoch (probably the most famous and powerful of the three.) It involves the invaded privacy of both fallen and returning soldiers and their families, the compromise of the sanctity of a child’s medical records, the attempted bribery of American law enforcement officials to obtain access to cell phones of the September 11 dead; and even, most pitifully, the manipulation of family members of an abducted 13-year-old girl who were misled into believing that their daughter was still alive because her cell phone messages were erased after her abduction—and of course after her death.
I doubt that James Patterson could invent a plot this twisty, or that Alfred Hitchcock could conceive of a story this macabre. Truth is stranger than fiction, despite all those aliens who regularly appear in the headlines of Mr. Murdoch’s tabloids.
Much of what was done by those News Corp. employees and their retainers was accomplished by hacking the cell phones of the various victims, illustrating a very interesting fact: the smart phone that you carry is not terribly dissimilar from the one that I carry, or the one that 13-year-old girls in the UK carry, or the one that Prime Ministers use, or even from President Obama’s BlackBerry—they’re all wonderfully functional and now indispensable devices that are quite vulnerable to prying eyes, and ears.
But, the one simple fact—that all cell phones are created more or less equal—is not the only salutary revelation of the News Corp. scandal. Indeed, with all of the ink and video that has been devoted to the facts, circumstances and personalities of this extraordinary situation, it seems that no one has had the simple courtesy to thank Mr. Murdoch for all of the good things that are coming out as a result of Cell-gate.
For example, most people used to think that the most dangerous thing about a cell phone was the way it could focus microwaves on the user’s brain, causing severe and menacingly slow cerebral deterioration. Pre-Cell-gate we all believed that there was little danger much beyond forgetting the name of our kids’ favorite breakfast cereal (however memorable some of them are). Post-Cell-gate we all know that the fact that Google and Apple use the GPS feature of our phone to track us every time we slam a door pales in comparison to what can really be done to us by clever reporters—and pretty much anyone else. Mr. Murdoch’s cell-ninjas have adeptly demonstrated to the entire world something that I’ve been saying in a comparative whisper for a very long time—our privacy, our money and, potentially, our lives are at risk to almost anyone with bad intent and a certain degree of technical skill.
But the real achievement of Mr. Murdoch’s Cirque du Celleil is to starkly illustrate something else I’ve been saying for a very long time: many major institutions still don’t take our privacy very seriously and they unthinkingly or even routinely use the marvels of modern technology to compromise it. The attitude that News Corp. demonstrated toward private information isn’t very different from the attitude of a financial institution when it provides private information to a debt collector or from a money manager when it sends password protected (but unencrypted) sensitive information to a government agency by regular mail—none of them really give a damn. It's all about making money, isn’t it? And profit seems to always trump privacy, whether the transgressor is a newspaper looking for circulation, a credit card company seeking to collect a debt, or an identity-stealing hacker in the business of selling Social Security numbers.
Obviously, I’m not writing here about the scandal itself, or who did what to whom, what was illegal and what was not, who knew what when, or why. I don’t know if Murdoch the elder or Murdoch the younger were privy to the goings-on, and I don’t know for a fact who is guilty of what. Frankly, at this stage neither does anyone else. What I do know is that this entire scandal should serve as a wake-up call to consumers and institutions alike. Modern technology is like an IV line into our arteries: good things can be put in through it, but our blood can easily be drained as well, often without any knowledge or awareness of the process on our part.
And whileit's not my intention to make light of a very serious situation, I do have a modest proposal for Mr. Murdoch. Wherever the chips may fall when the story is finally written, make sure that the technical details of just how the hacking was accomplished are fully and widely disclosed. Spend whatever it takes to teach the general public how cell phone hacking can be prevented. Institute new and potent rules to protect the privacy not only of journalistic subjects, but also of your own employees (remember that the personal information of Fox News personnel in the U.S. was compromised by an unidentified third party earlier this year).
Most importantly, Mr. Murdoch, not only should you take steps to change the corporate culture and attitude toward privacy and the gathering of personal information at News Corp., but also work to encourage the same at every other company, financial institution and government entity with whom you deal or have sway. If we have institutions that care about privacy and a public that is well informed with respect to the risks of everyday digital life and the prophylactic steps that must be taken to avoid danger, we will all have a better world—and you, too, could get some of your privacy, and perhaps even your dignity, returned.