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Smartphones and 'Off the Record'

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Co-authored by Dr. Stephen Bryen

Anyone who deals with the media knows what "off the record" means. When you announce that you will talk off the record it means that whatever you say cannot be reported or reprinted. Public officials, office holders, and leading personalities often speak "off the record" so they can engage in lively dialogue without risk to themselves or to the organization they represent.

Speaking "off the record" usually means some form of consent, such as establishing the ground rules between the speaker and the reporter, or between the speaker and the audience. But today "off the record" is becoming a dangerous thing, as Frank Luntz, a top GOP political consultant can testify. Luntz was giving a speech at the University of Pennsylvania and his talk was videotaped (although you mostly see the ceiling of the room he was in, but you hear him clearly enough). His remarks and the video wound up in Mother Jones' web pages, without his consent.

It is open to question whether Mother Jones violated any rules, even if the "rules" are customary.

Luntz's talk was recorded on a smartphone. This could have been done by someone in the room, say someone who disagreed with what Luntz had to say, which was critical of some of the GOP's more conservative personalities and supporters, like Rush Limbaugh. Or it could have been done by someone who planted a spyphone on someone in the room, and the event was transcribed without the user even knowing it.

Spyphones are becoming increasingly common and commercialized. They turn a smartphone into a spy machine that can be switched on at any time and which can video record an event and spit it out over the Internet even in real time. It is difficult to identify if a spyphone has been planted on a phone, and anyway most people are oblivious about mobile phone security and pay no attention.

So Mother Jones got fed a hot story and can say that they were in no way bound by the "off the record" nature of the meeting where Luntz spoke. Or were they? In this age of cellphones, no one can be sure anymore.

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