There’s no true, dependable privacy when we’re tapping or typing. And on one level we’re conscious of this. Major scandals, minor news stories and the plots of police procedurals remind us, time and again, that the seemingly evanescent communications through our smartphones, tablets, laptops (how presciently named!) and personal computers aren’t evanescent at all. They live on, float around and can be reeled in by a lawyer with a subpoena, a hacker with an agenda or a run-of-the-mill technician just letting his curiosity get the better of him.
But this awareness is more a faint beep at the edges of our thoughts than the screeching siren it should be. It doesn’t fully sink in, because it’s so dissonant with how protected and anonymous a cocoon we seem to inhabit when we’re texting, e-mailing or surfing the Web. A neighbor has no eyes or ears on what we’re up to. Neither does the co-worker in the adjacent cubicle, the pregnant woman nursing a decaffeinated latte at the next table or, for that matter, the significant other snoozing just a few inches away.
There’s a thrilling sense of isolation and permission, and the dim threat of eventual discovery is apparently no match for it. If it were, the example of the disgraced Congressman Mark Foley would have stopped Weiner, and the trials of the displaced Gov. Mark Sanford would have given Petraeus pause.