Better than a thousand hollow words, is one word that brings peace.—Buddha
I was amused recently when the driver of a car that was passing us could be seen gesturing rather vehemently while she talked, neither hand actually on the steering wheel as she passed. She was deep in conversation and obviously very passionate about the topic. While the visual observance was humorous, I was also just a bit concerned that neither of her hands were on the wheel as she zipped down the rather crowded street. The whole thing made me curious as to what she might be discussing, but that’s none of my business, right?
There is audio going viral of a certain well-known rapper who recently appeared on the television program Saturday Night Live. The rapper, whose ego is matched only by his narcissism, can be heard claiming that he is fifty percent more influential than any other person and then instructing those within immediate hearing distance, “don’t fuck with me!” Here’s the thing: the rapper was not in public space at the time the words were spoken. He was behind a closed door with his team. He did not know he was being recorded, but not the rantings of this petulant child are scattered across the Internet. There’s no getting them back. You can hear the audio here.
We tend to not give a great deal of thought to how important our words might be, and we almost never give any consideration to who owns the conversations we have, whether face to face or online. When texting your significant other that they need to purchase milk on their way home, one typically doesn’t consider that message profound enough to warrant any type of legal protection. The words are just out there, no big deal.
Consider, however, that one is a songwriter or a scriptwriter swapping ideas with a writing partner. Concepts and phrases jump back and forth between the two, and then, months later, one discovers that the other has used pieces of that conversation in a script or a song without crediting the partner. The next text is likely to be to a lawyer. However, one might ask why one set of words is protected more than the other.
This isn’t a new conversation, actually. I remember while I was still in college, 40 or 50 eons ago, there being a significant lawsuit over who owned letters in a correspondence between a now-famous author and a friend. Both subjects were deceased and the author’s family wanted the letters back because they contained information regarding the influences and inspirations and state of mind the author had while writing different books. The family of the friend did not want to let them go, however, claiming that once the author had mailed the letters they were no longer his (which is standard case law).
So, when you open your mouth or send a message to a friend, regardless of the medium, who owns that information and who has a right to access that information, especially if you’re not around to access it yourself.?
That question is at the core of the FBI’s request, and subsequent court order, for Apple to create software that would undo the encryption on the phone used by one of the shooters in a terrorist act last December. The stance taken by Apple, and vehemently argued by CEO Tim Cook, is that you own the words you type, and the communication you engage through your phone. To that end, Apple has natively encrypted everything on their iPhone with a level of security that even Apple itself cannot hack.
However, laws allow that any communication made in relation to or during the commission of a crime can be used to prosecute those who committed that crime and, especially in the case of what would be considered terrorist activities, to prevent additional crimes from being committed. Therefore, the FBI, with the court’s backing, they have a right to access the information on that phone.
Remember that line in the list of Miranda rights that says, “You have the right to remain silent. If you choose to not remain silent, anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law.” All of your words, any of your words, can be used against you. If your words can be used against you, do you still own them?
At the same time, those seemingly innocent conversations can save one a lot of trouble. Let’s go back to that text about buying milk on the way home. That text is essentially creating an alibi for where your significant other goes between work and home. Should a crime be committed in the same area about the same time, that text could potentially help exonerate your partner, but only if you share it. One has to let go of the strict possession of that message.
Even words that we copyright, such as those I’m typing now, we don’t fully own. Copyright law allows for “acceptable use” by third parties, use that does not require my permission. My words can end up used in ways I did not intend and cannot control. In fact, I might never know the extent to which my words are being used out of context.
Here’s the frightening fact: one words leave your brain, regardless of medium, you lose control of those words, where they go, how they are used, and whom they influence. Privacy, as much as we may value it, is an illusion. And words we don’t control can get us into trouble.
Last example: I may tell Kat that I am shooting two people this evening. She understands those words to mean that I’m taking pictures later today. She goes to the salon, then, and casually mentions to one of her co-workers that I am shooting two people this evening. A guest who doesn’t know me becomes alarmed and notifies police. Why? I am shooting two people this evening. Doesn’t that sound like something the police needs to know?
My words, but I don’t own them.
Maybe, just maybe, we should give a bit more thought to our words before we allow them to escape our grasp.