As 2009 comes to a close and the stories about his "infidelities" fade, Tiger Woods is learning the hard way that extramarital affairs may be fleeting but the digital fingerprints they leave are indelible.
Tiger may be the world's greatest golfer and the decade's best athlete, but the digital landscape handicaps the great and the ordinary alike. Had Tiger not provided a plethora of digital clues about his relationships, the damage to his reputation would have been much less severe.
Perhaps Tiger did not fully comprehend the lasting effects of his digital footprints. His recorded voicemail asking one of his mistresses to delete her voicemail greeting to avoid detection from his wife in the event she called seemed hopelessly naïve. His various text messages that were reprinted were ripe for tabloid sensationalism.
Indeed, in this new technology-driven era of digital voicemail, text messages, emails, and all of the social networking sites, one's effort to conceal embarrassing, illicit or even criminal acts becomes somewhat futile.
Tiger may have been guided by a common misconception that text messages, unlike email, leave no digital history. Of course, email communications may be indefinitely stored on both the sender's and recipient's servers in addition to both party's personal email boxes.
Text messages, too, have a digital afterlife. Text messages can, in some cases, reside indefinitely on one's cell phone. Wireless companies also maintain an actual record of the text message from a few days to several weeks, depending on the company, and there have been situations where an actual text has been obtained many months later.
Even if the actual text message is not recovered, an individual billing record lists the phone number of the text message's recipient or sender. In legal cases, a capable attorney can weave a damaging case - even without the actual messages - based on the preponderance of texts to a particular individual.
Yet, inexplicably, in today's digital era, it seems that the text message provides the all too revealing clue to one's dalliances. For example, former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick's affair with a staffer was exposed as a result of the hundreds of text messages he sent on his government issued phone.
As a previous victim of digital crimes, Woods should have known better. Tiger, whose real name is Eldrick T. Woods, had his identity stolen several years ago. (Identity theft has plagued millions of Americans in the last decade.) This crime only became apparent after the thief attempted to buy a used car, and it was too far fetched to fathom that a person with a multimillion-dollar car endorsement was seeking such a purchase.
Of course, Tiger's actions beg more basic questions that go beyond digital savvy. Why risk his immaculate image? Why no restraint? And why not rely on "handlers" and alternative cell phones like certain other high profile athletes and personalities?
Nonetheless, the digital lessons from Tiger's incident seem clear. Like the instant gratification of the affair that ultimately leads to a disintegration of one's long-term relationship or marriage, the ease and convenience of digital communications (such as email and text messaging) in the short term can haunt you in the long term when certain information is revealed or taken out of context.
No doubt, incidents where one's personal privacy is violated are bound to increase and push the legal frontiers. Coincidentally, the United States Supreme Court recently agreed to hear its first case in this area, involving a police officer's right to privacy stemming from text messages sent and received on a government issued pager. Whether the Supreme Court provides any clear legal guidance for us, we must all be mindful of the consequences that our communications have upon our personal privacy.
Many golfers joked after Tiger's accident that you always get into trouble when you have a short drive and then hit a tree. The same can often be said of text messages.