< The Blackberry Defense

Transcript

Friday, December 16, 2011

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

It seems that in 2008 James Murdoch, in his role as head of News International, was forwarded an email thread from a News of the World editor about the messy libel case the paper was fighting. The email details the plaintiff's complaint that his phone was hacked. Does that mean that Murdoch knew about the scope of his paper's phone hacking, something that he has long denied? Is email the smoking gun for the digital age?

Well, Murdoch claims that although he did receive the email and even replied to the email on his BlackBerry, he didn't read down far enough to grasp the gravity of the situation. Thus, the BlackBerry defense is born.

William Powers, author of Hamlet's BlackBerry, says that though Murdoch is hard to believe, he's not hard to relate to.

WILLIAM POWERS:

I and a lot of people I know just don't have the time to really read every email that we get as carefully as we should, and you tend to dash them off and get to the next one, and just try and empty that inbox so you can get your life back. And this is a reminder that, you know, there could be something down there that maybe you should pay attention to, 'cause it might come back and bite you someday.

[BROOKE LAUGHS]

I can completely sympathize and understand that someone wouldn't have read an entire email because I've done it, and based on experiences I've had with friends and colleagues, often things that I put toward the bottom of an email do get overlooked.

But on a whole other level, is it possible that someone running a company this important and with that much at stake would not have read this entire email? It strains credibility.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

Authorities are getting pretty smart about this. They don't use at least the government email because they know that it can be scrutinized later.

WILLIAM POWERS:

In certain professions, and the law is at the top of the list, people have learned when something is really important and could actually get someone in trouble down the line, you go offline with it. You go back to voice on the telephone or you go back to in-person conversations; just don't leave a trail.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

Using not having read emails as an excuse is relatively new, but there are technological precedents for these kinds of excuses, right?

WILLIAM POWERS:

Yes. There are definitely precedents. The first one that came to mind when I heard about this was in the Watergate period, the famous 18-minute gap in the Rosemary Woods tape in the White House and the question of whether she had mistakenly erased it or whether it had been intentionally erased. But the point was the machine was implicated.

And another one that I thought of is very often these Wall Street crashes are blamed on trading programs. And so, basically the human beings can kind of wash their hands and say, well, it was a program glitch, sorry.

[BROOKE LAUGHS]

You know, sorry that we lost 2 percent of the nation's wealth yesterday.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

[LAUGHS] Another digital excuse is the one where the writer or the historian plagiarizes and says, I didn't really mean to, I just had so many windows open, and I was copying and pasting historical data and I forgot where it came from.

WILLIAM POWERS:

Yeah.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

What do you think about the windows defense?

WILLIAM POWERS:

Now, whether or not these people who claim that are telling the truth, we don't know. Yes, you know, that is a third category. And there will be new ones. There will probably be a social networking version of this [LAUGHS], you know, that will come in some future scandal; we don't know what it is.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

I think there's a sort of weird irony in the fact that the whole Murdoch controversy started with people breaking into voicemails. Now the controversy's gaining more steam because James Murdoch wasn't paying attention to his emails.

WILLIAM POWERS:

In a weird way it begins with someone getting too deep into other people's technology, and then it ends, or at least this latest chapter, is someone not getting deep enough into his own technology, and in this case the inbox. [LAUGHS]

And, of course, they are a media company, so it's very much from the start and all the way through about the ways we use and misuse our modern devices.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

Thanks very much.

WILLIAM POWERS:

Thank you, Brooke.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

Bill Powers is the author of Hamlet's BlackBerry:  Building a Good Life in the Digital Age.