Tiger is having a tough week. You know the whole story. At least you think you do. You’ve heard the damning voicemail, you’ve seen the remarkable sext messages, you’ve seen the nude photos of his wife (both the photo-shopped and real ones), you’ve seen the extraordinary photo-shopped pictures of a severely beaten Tiger standing next to his golf-club-wielding wife. Yep, you’ve seen and heard it all.
Most people I’ve spoken to come away with the salient points: Tiger is the most famous athlete in the world. He is the richest. He cheated on his wife. He’s going to have to play his way out of this mess, etc. But, there is a much more important lesson to be learned here.
Most people believe that because Tiger is the focus of this “scandal” that there are unlimited resources being applied to the uncovering of his indiscretions. One hears all kind of rumors about the thousands of dollars offered for any bit of information that might help astonish the gathering hoards. For the right story, the world’s best investigative reporters have been retained — they will use private eyes and any means possible to get the story. NSA-type surveillance technology has been conscripted for the effort.
It’s the 21st century. And in our time, there is absolutely no reasonable expectation of privacy. Not for Tiger, not for you, not for me. This lesson should not be lost on any of us. No one is as famous as Tiger, but when your significant other wants to catch you doing something you shouldn’t be doing, they will use the same tools to incriminate you: your browser history, your txt message stack, your mobile phone records, the MAC addresses of your electronic devices, your credit card receipts (the electronic statements, not the physical pieces of paper), the GPS chip in your car, the GPS chip in your phone, any Facebook quiz you ever took, Google Earth, Google Latitude and Google History. (Yes, Google is not your friend here.) In fact, I do not have enough space in this article to list all of the places you leave an electronic trail, so obviously yours, that even an unmotivated semi-tech-savvy 14-year-old could trap you.
Tiger is a human being with a family and he is doing the best he can to deal with a very difficult situation, but his plea for privacy is naive. There is simply no such thing.
Most of us think that we are safe because we are, for all practical purposes, anonymous. So what if I call home from the bowling alley and tell my wife I’m at choir practice? She won’t know, and no one will care. True enough. As a practical matter, it is very unlikely that a tabloid television show or magazine would care to use this bit of information in any way. But her lawyer will make extraordinary use of it during your divorce negotiations. How will the lawyer obtain this information … child’s play.
Did you buy drinks for your friends on your company credit card? Did you send a “Tigeresque” sext message? (The un-dry cleaned, GAP blue dress of this generation.) Have you taken a risqué picture and MMS’d it? Left a suggestive or self-incriminating voicemail message? How about simply calling from a landline phone from a place you should not have been (forgetting that almost everyone has caller ID)? Did you opt-in to having your credit card statements emailed to you as PDF files? Your life is an open e-book. Mine too, and that’s the point.
There’s not much we can do about this. There are elected leaders in Washington trying to deal with privacy in the information age, but the technology is far beyond the scope of even the most comprehensive legislation.
So, here are the guidelines for living your digital life in the 21st century. Do not type or txt anything you do not wish to make part of the permanent body of knowledge of mankind. You can’t take it back … ever. Every voicemail you leave is a recording. Remember Watergate? If not, check the Wiki. When you take a quiz on Facebook or press the “Allow” button, you are giving a person or company you don’t know access to your Facebook data. In general, don’t take pictures you don’t want your mother to see (that’s the nicest way I can think of putting this). Lastly, do not ever think that an electronic transaction is private. It may be secure, but a secure transaction is not a private one. Someone, somewhere, has complete (as in, absolute, total, full) access to your financial data when you do a transaction. They may not be in a position to hurt you in any way, but when someone wants to know if a transaction took place, there is no such thing as an anonymous electronic transaction. That’s what cash is for.
Tiger, thanks for the teaching moment. Welcome to the 21st century!