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PILLOW TALK: Diplomacy could grind to a halt if everything is on a microphone
CONTINUING from last week with what we began on "privacy", I see it's become a big and popular new issue. A really fine article in The Chronicle of Higher Education urges us to throw away the argument that, "if we have nothing to hide, why would we find more hidden cameras or government phone tracking something to lose sleep over?"
Well, I don't want a camera in my bedroom, and I don't want friends to see my credit card statements. It's none of their business.
The government, particularly my own, has led the way in official transparency, and when the Freedom of Information Act was proposed in 1967, officials reacted at first with horror at the new burden it would impose -- not to mention the unwrapping of their self-serving secrets.
In fact, it turned out not to be too big a deal in that respect, and opened up multiple avenues to trace the long strings of misgovernance that had long covered up embarrassing episodes like using underprivileged folks for medical experimentation. Or just historical documents that under no justification should be kept secret.
Even WikiLeaks' massive publications last year proved, on balance, positive. There were a lot of things that were good to know.
Chinese officials advising our diplomats not to worry too much about North Korea, since it would be gone within a few years, is a good example. More importantly, it tended to show that diplomacy works, and that American diplomats were often pretty good at it. But as a gain overall, it had to be a one-time affair. That world can't transact day-to-day business if it knows everything is on a microphone. Ambassadors will go back to speaking only near a loud radio. In Helsinki, where Americans were negotiating on nuclear arms with Moscow in the 1970s, our diplomats only talked with one another in a room-sized plastic bubble that resisted even the extensive wiring that the Soviets could maintain in its then near-satellite. I was there.
But I see little being said about one area that governs a lot of our life. We used to talk to a person at the other end of the phone about billing errors, and now we know just how difficult it is to get a real person rather than a choice of messages that never quite seems to be responsive. It has become rather Kafkaesque, as where Joseph K., on his 30th birthday, is arrested, never finding what the charge is or really what is going on in the courtroom.
I found some fraudulent charges on a credit card, duly reported to the police and to the fraud department -- calling at my expense internationally, though I was no doubt talking to a call centre next door in Makati, Manila -- and in two weeks we had two new cards. Then two weeks later the fraud charges were reimposed. I finally got somebody on the phone, they passed me along -- three times -- to different sub-departments, and action was promised. Nothing happened.
New rounds of calls -- their "collect" numbers promise is a bit of a fraud itself. The fraud department said it was up to the call centre, which in turn threw the ball back in their own court. There was absolutely no accountability.
It's convenient that way; I'm sure many will just give up and the bank is saved from one little problem. Not me. I started faxing them daily, and finally, after more than three months, the charges were again removed. I wasn't about to pay US$1,000 for some gaudy jewellery in a Manila store. Let's hope they don't reverse themselves for a fourth time.
Sometimes popular action works. A class action suit was initiated a decade ago against the big credit card companies for hugely inflated super-charges for international transactions, and most people just checked off the default entry.
I, however, made a fairly orderly estimate of the five years' usage of cards abroad.
Lo and behold! Early this year I got a cheque for more than US$2,000 (RM6,300) as refund of their abuse. My only problem was the check was sent so long ago that I had to FedEx it to my bank in Washington before the check went stale. No doubt I'd otherwise have never seen a reissue.
My indispensable Kindle recently imploded for the third time, and just like last time -- only four months ago -- I was quickly able to test it with a "chat" agent (in India) who agreed to send a new one pronto. Of course, I wish Kindles didn't break down so easily (this will be my fifth), but Amazon's Kindle division is a model of business responsiveness.
If accountability is good for government, shouldn't it also be for business? I note that as soon as Barack Obama became president, the charges for debit card swipes -- up to US$15 -- went down by two-thirds. The bank knew the bullet president would use; moral pressure only for starters. Let's keep that sort of thing going. But let's also keep big brother out of our private lives. Everybody deserves a secret.