Writings on technology and society from Wellington, New Zealand

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Secretly taping people

Today on Radio New Zealand National I talked about the technology involved in secretly taping someone. It’s not that hard, although most of us would consider it very rude.
Read on for my speaking notes or listen to the podcast.

Q: OK – secret recordings – topical of course, with several National party members taped without their knowledge. How do people secretly tape others?

A: The technology is very simple. Journalists have used dictaphones for years – print journalists that is – I was interviewed quite extensively for a New Zealand Internet history book which is being launched next week, and that was all done with a dictaphone sitting on the table. I expect the author got lots of tapes from people he interviewed for the book and referred to them as he was writing it.

Q: But these Dictaphones are fairly chunky machines…

A: Usually, but they don’t have to be. In principle you can make them as small as you like. The machines don’t need to have cassettes in any more – everything is recorded digitally. There are no moving parts. So there’s no lower limit to the size of an audio recorder beyond what you can actually hold.

Q: What about the microphone? Wouldn’t that be obvious?

A: Microphones can be pretty small. I should just explain that, here in Radio New Zealand, we are speaking into to relatively large microphones which are covered in black plastic foam – you couldn’t hide them or mistake them for anything else. And no doubt big microphones like this are best when you want good quality recordings. But if you are less concerned about quality and you just want to hide the mike, they can be a lot smaller. The wireless mikes that TV journalists and public speakers often use are a lot smaller, for instance, maybe the size of a little fingernail. And you could make them a lot smaller still if you weren’t too bothered about quality.

Q: And some of those recordings played on TV3 sounded pretty bad.

A: They certainly did. But, you don’t even need to buy in strange gadgets off the Internet to do this. Many MP3 players will do voice recording.

Q: iPods you mean?

A: Actually not iPods, or not without an adaptor which is easy to get. But lots of really small and cheap gadgets that are primarily music players also have a microphone and can record what they here.

Q: So their quality would be pretty bad…

A: As bad as the recordings on TV3 you mean? Then there’s mobile phones. Lots of phones have a voice recording function. And smart phones like the iPhone – you can get software which transforms them into a voice recorder.

Q: So how to deal with the problem of being recorded?

A: I’m not sure that there is a technological solution. You could put everyone through a metal detector at the door and take everyone’s toys away – that’s going to go down well with the party faithful – and there’s no guarantee that you will get everything, anyway – I could have a voice recorder in a pen, for instance and the guards wouldn’t recognize that.

But I think this is more a problem of human behaviour than of technology. I think it’s extremely rude to tape someone without their knowledge. So, to me, the people who did this have breached etiquette.

Q: Isn’t secretly taping people illegal?

A: You’d have to ask a lawyer. But it sounds as though there were a lot of people in the rooms where these comments were recorded and I question whether there could be any reasonable expectation of privacy on the part of the politicians concerned. So, I doubt it.

I think the issue here is that people who want us to vote for them to run the country have been saying one thing to one audience and a different thing to another. To me that is a legitimate subject of public interest. Whether it overrides the rudeness of secretly taping someone is matter for judgment, and that’s a judgment that various media outlets have clearly made.

Q: So how can you avoid being secretly recorded?

A: Choose who you talk to and what you say to them! If you go around with conflicting messages for different audiences, watch out! I think it’s a bit precious to go round telling the electorate one thing and your supported something else, and then to object about secret taping when someone exposes that. I think we will see more of this kind of thing. Whether it resonates with the public will be based on a balance of interest in exposing mixed messages versus public disgust about the poor etiquette involved.

Q: What about secret filming?

A: There was some legislation about that quite recently. Basically it says that you mustn’t film people in an area where they have a reasonable expectation that they will not be filmed, like a changing room in a swimming pool.

Q: And this is all driven by cell phone cameras.

A: Yes, it seems so. The technology is out there in most people’s pockets now. The real point is not the technology – it’s the people. It’s rude to film people without asking them, and the law in this case has made it more than rude – it’s made it a criminal offence, but really it’s still all about people’s behaviour. You’ll notice that the law didn’t say “you shall not take a cell phone equipped with a camera into a changing room”. The technology is not the point, and besides, you might well want to take your cell phone with you to the gym, just not for filming people changing. The point is what people do with the technology.

And there was another interesting incident that’s come to light recently. The Sunday Times is reporting that, last month, when Gordon Brown visited China, one of his aides went to a night club in Shanghai. There he met a beautiful woman, and one thing led to another, she went back to his hotel room with him, and when he woke up his BlackBerry was missing. That’s caused a big security flap, since there would be all kinds of material on it which would be of great interest to a foreign government.

Q: Classified material, you mean?

A: I doubt that anything that’s actually classified would be allowed on a BlackBerry, but it could still be very damaging. And the Sunday Times is claiming that this was an intelligence operation against the British government.

Q: How else does modern technology affect elections? Youtube, for instance?

A: It certainly does have an impact! Howard Dean’s campaign for the democratic nomination died a few years ago after an unfortunate Youtube clip. Or there’s Hillary this year, being caught, let’s say “exaggerating”, the dangers she had faced as first lady. And now we see politicians trying to use the medium. It’s not always pretty. Last week I mentioned a New Zealand MP’s facebook page – it smacked of trying to hard and not getting it. But at least he tried. Or there’s the reported comment of a sixth former after being visited by John Key – any man over forty with a Bebo page is a sad, sad man. But I think, good on them for trying – but for heaven’s sake hire someone less than thirty who can give you some sensible advice. David Cameron – John Key’s opposite number in the UK – ran a series on Youtube called Web Cameron which was quite well produced and appropriate to the medium – and the name was quite funny as well.

Q: And we are seeing broadband increasingly becoming an election issue.

A: Yes. That happened in Australia, where the government has a huge problem trying to rein in Telstra. And it’s happening here, with a kind of bidding war – National are talking about spending a lot of public money to get an improvement in broadband.

Q: They want to spend a billion dollars!

A: It’s a lot of money in little old New Zealand, isn’t it? Listen to the message here, though: it’s saying that they believe in the technology, in the Internet, and in what it can do for New Zealand. And they clearly believe that enough New Zealanders will agree with them.

Q: What’s your view?

A: I’m waiting for InternetNZ’s analysis of the positions of the two major parties – but I’m very enthusiastic about anything that improves the so-called broadband that is all we have at the moment.


UK Prime Minister’s aide loses his BlackBerry.

Voice recording software for the iPhone.

posted by colin at 11:50 am  

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