Now You’re Concerned?

Bill Neinast

Some who have been senior citizens for several decades chuckle when they hear concern over privacy when the government keeps records of telephone numbers.  The youngsters with those concerns would be apoplectic if using the telephone was still like it was not too long ago.

You did not dial the number of the person with whom you wanted to visit when I started using phones.  You dialed the phone and got “central,” a woman sitting at a switchboard.  You stated the number you wanted and central connected your phone with that number.

In small towns, there was no need to know telephone numbers.  Just tell central, “I want to talk with Joe.”  Central would recognize the caller’s voice and know that he wanted Joe Smith instead of Joe Davis.  Sometimes, central might answer, “Joe’s not there.  He just called Dr. Smedlap and left for an appointment.”

When compared with telephone service in rural areas in those days, having a central keep up with your interests was real privacy.  Only central knew with whom you visited under that system.

In rural areas, everyone with a telephone was hard wired with every other telephone in the system.  Telephone numbers were not assigned.  Phones were connected by “rings.”  Joe’s ring was two longs and a short, Bill’s was two shorts, etc.  When Bill wanted to talk with Joe, he would turn the crank on his phone for a second, pause, crank for another second, pause and crank for half a second.  That was two longs and a short. 

Every phone in the system would ring with that call.  Not only would everyone with a phone know that Joe was being called, but many would know that Bill was making the call.  Everyone had a “signature” ring by ringing the longs and shorts a bit longer or faster than others.  So anyone who wanted to know what was going on between Bill and Joe just picked up his phone and joined in the conversation.

This system was eventually modernized so that only a limited number of 

subscribers were on the “party” line.  Under that system, only the phone of the person being called would ring.  If, however, someone else on the party line picked up the phone to make a call, he would be right in the middle of the ongoing conversation and could join in or just listen, as most did. 

Everyone was so happy to have the convenience of visiting with family, friends, and neighbors from the convenience of their easy chairs that no thought was given to privacy.  If they did not want everyone to know what was happening to them, they just did not mention it on the phone.

Compare that to sitting in a restaurant or other public place today.  Someone at an adjoining table or booth may be talking loudly into his cell phone to boast about his latest escapade.  At the next booth, several couples are carrying on a lively, loud discussion of their interests without regard to who might be invading their privacy. 

Even more curious is the apparent lack of concern over privacy concerning the items stuffing mail boxes.  Ever wonder why you get so many catalogs and solicitations for charitable contributions?  If you order a blouse from the ABC company, expect your mail box to be filled in about a month with catalogs from other companies selling blouses.  

Did you ever send a contribution to an organization headquartered in NYC or make a campaign contribution to a political candidate? Did you then have to get a larger mail box to handle the influx of solicitations from other charities and candidates?

How did all those companies, charities, and candidates get your address with an indication that you might be interested in whatever they have to offer?

So here’s the perspective.

A record of what telephone numbers are dialed from your phone and what telephone numbers are calling your phone is the least invasion of privacy, if it is an invasion at all, in the history of mechanical communication.  An invasion of privacy would be a third party listening to or recording your conversations, as in the days of the party line.

If you are not communicating with a known terrorist or identified criminal, the chances of the government or anyone else listening to or recording your telephone conversations are zero.  

Many millions, if not billions, of telephone calls are made in this country every day.  The number of computers required to record and analyze each of those conversations is inestimable.

So go on and call Aunt Sally without an ounce of concern that someone else is listening in and be thankful that Big Brother is watching who might be calling a telephone registered to terrorists intent on harming this country.


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