Bugged Out

Want to gain trust? One entrepreneur swears the answer is to distrust.

Rick Anderson dreams of a more trusting society. And one way to achieve it, the president of National Telco Inc. argues, is to secretly record people's conversations.

This year the Houston telecommunications company began offering a service that allows customers to use their telephones as recorders. A person with a cell phone can slip into a business meeting or an encounter with salespeople or police and capture evidence of all manner of incivilities or even crimes like sexual harassment and civil rights abuses, Anderson says.

"Our new president talked about the truth, trust, truthful [sic], trust worthiness [sic], integrity, now let's start living it," he writes in a letter touting the secret recording service. "Let's start by holding everyone accountable for what they say."

Anderson says he could have used his own service in a run-in with police.
Deron Neblett
Anderson says he could have used his own service in a run-in with police.

Users dial a phone number (they can use speed-dial or voice activation) that automatically activates taping. The recordings get stored on a mainframe computer at the company and can be downloaded onto a disk and shipped to a customer.

Anderson, who likens the service to customized voice mail, imagines all kinds of scenarios in which the product might come in handy. A person could capture discrimination, document a boss promising a raise, or a salesperson quoting a price for a house or car.

"All it does is it gives you a mechanism to use in order to prove that you're telling the truth or that [another] person is not telling the truth," he says.

But Will Harrell, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas, takes a less expansive view. He doubts that the product is anything more than a "marketing scam." It fits neatly into a trend that has placed citizens under increased surveillance at work and elsewhere, Harrell says.

"This could be the next step in our societal paranoia and effort to have control and surveillance at all times," he says.

In Texas it is perfectly legal to tape somebody without his or her knowledge or consent, says David Dow, a professor at the University of Houston Law Center. Federal privacy law does not prohibit the practice.

States have discretion to define those areas in which a person has a legitimate expectation of privacy, Dow says. In Maryland, for instance, Linda Tripp was charged with violating state wiretapping laws when she surreptitiously recorded Monica Lewinsky, although the charges against Tripp ultimately were dropped.

To avoid complications, National Telco is selling its recording services only to customers in Texas (rates range from $15 to $35 monthly, depending on the extent of use). Customers can access the service anywhere in the country, but the company assumes no liability if customers run afoul of the law in other states, Anderson says.

Anderson, who says he got the idea for "System of Proof" from a retired law enforcement officer, is excited about the technology's potential to stem racial profiling and other questionable tactics by police. The African-American businessman says he has been in situations in which he would have benefited from the technology.

He says he once handed money to an employee in the parking lot outside his office, and a passing police officer mistook it for a drug deal. Anderson says it was only after the approaching officer ordered him to put his hands on his car that he was allowed to give an explanation.

Had he had the service then, "I would have had proof that that was something that was illegal," he says of the officer's conduct. "It shouldn't have taken place."

The ACLU's Harrell agrees that beefed-up surveillance can help curb police misconduct. The organization is working with the Texas Police Chiefs Association to require video cameras in all police cars, and voice-activated taping devices on officers.

Harrell and Dow, the UH law professor, believe the wide-ranging uses imagined by Anderson for his product reflect a world that increasingly relies on technology to play a Big Brother-like role, one that diminishes basic trust and stifles freedom.

"This whole availability of technology implicates a trade-off between knowing more but living in a creepier world," Dow says.

Anderson argues that the mere threat of being secretly recorded will put people on their best behavior.

"When you don't know if it's on and you don't know who has it, then I think you're … more inclined to do what's right," he says. "Words are very, very important, and I think that really we'll have a more truthful society…."

 
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