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Robert Barron column: Never assured of privacy on phones

The operator felt she had an obligation and the right to monitor these calls
Robert’s column

We’ve certainly come a long way in information technology in a relatively short time.

We are instantly linked these days to just about anyone in the world through social media, and phones seem to have pretty much taken a back seat to today’s modern communication marvels.

But there was a time just a few decades ago when the telephone was all there was to reach out to people whom you couldn’t talk to face to face.

And they were not exactly cell phones either.

In the late 1960s when I was a youngster, my family moved to a small bay community at the end of a very long gravel highway in rural Newfoundland that was well removed from many facets of what was considered civilization.

We had a phone in the house, but you would only see one like it in a museum these days.

It’s not like there were no rotary phones at the time (I’m not that old), but in many out-of-the way places at the time, current trends in technology were always slow in coming.

This phone, which looked like something you’d see in The Waltons television series, had a crank on it that had to be turned several times before you would finally be connected to the town’s operator.

The operator would ask who you were calling and you’d say that you were trying to get in touch with someone else in the community and give her (the operator always seemed to be a woman in those days) their name.

I was just a toddler so I don’t remember how long distance phone calls were handled, and when I used the phone, it was usually to talk to one of my friends down the road.

There were no numbers involved that I can recall and the operator would always know the family you were trying to contact and make the connection.

For some reason, the operator felt she had an obligation and the right to monitor these calls and if you started receiving or giving answers to homework questions, she would cut into the conversation and say that’s not allowed before she cut the connection.

Astonishingly, the fact that the operator gave herself the right and moral authority to listen in on all the phone conversations in the community was never questioned by anyone that I knew of.

It just seemed to be part of the experience of living in that mining and fishing community.

If you wanted to have private conversations, you had to go and meet people personally because if you had the discussion on the phone, everyone in town would likely know the topic of the conversation within a very short time.

I expect operators would be fired and even face charges if they listened in on calls like that in today’s world, but those were different times and the practice was seen as normal and even accepted; at least in that town.

The operator had the pulse of the community in many ways and usually knew who was pregnant, in trouble with the law or cheating on their spouses before many members of their families knew themselves.

I remember that when we moved into a larger community a few years later that had normal telephones, I would always be hesitant to talk about anything personal on the phone for fear that some neighbour would bring it up to me after hearing about it through the phone gossip line.

But even the modern world offers no real privacy for phone owners.

The police and other authorities can track your movements through your cell phones and, I’m sure, can also listen in on your conversations if they felt so inclined.

I recall late one night a few years ago at my home here on the Island, an RCMP officer knocked on the door and said they were tracking some felon by following his cell phone signal and the cop believed the suspect went into my backyard.

I’m no criminal, but I’ve been wary of my cell phone ever since.

But, regardless of the fact that I consider this an invasion of people’s personal privacy, I bet no one would cut me off if I were sharing my homework on the phone.

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Robert Barron

About the Author: Robert Barron

Since 2016, I've had had the pleasure of working with our dedicated staff and community in the Cowichan Valley.
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