Michael Palmer and the telltale phone

I am conflicted by the New Paper report on Michael Palmer’s extramarital affair which led to his resignation as Speaker of Singapore’s Parliament and from the ruling People’s Action Party yesterday. I am impressed that The New Paper was tipped off about the affair before it became public. I am uneasy, however, about the loss of privacy because of digital technology.

The New Paper report on Michael Palmer
The New Paper report on Michael Palmer

The cell phone may as well be called the telltale phone. Splashed today on The New Paper are text messages exchanged between Michael Palmer and Laura Ong, who resigned as People’s Association constituency director for Pasir Ris West Constituency Office three days ago. The New Paper says the text messages, emailed to it by an informant, are screen grabs from Ong’s phone.  It does not say how it was possible to get screen grabs from her phone. Of course, anyone could get them if they had access to her phone. Then it would be a piece of cake.

Email can be risky too. Remember General David Petraeus, who resigned as director of the Central Intelligence Agency in November this year after his extramarital affair became public? The authorities got wind of the affair when the FBI checked the anonymous threats made against another woman who was a friend of the general. The investigators found the woman was getting the anonymous email from Petraeus’ biographer, Paula Broadwell.  As they went through Broadwell’s email, they discovered her affair with the general.

Wired magazine explained how the FBI zeroed in on Broadwell while checking the anonymous threats against the other woman, Jill Kelley:

Authorities say the location data connected to the e-mails and the e-mail account from which they were sent, helped them identify the sender as Petraeus’ biographer, Paula Broadwell.

This helped them search other e-mail accounts owned by Broadwell, including a Gmail account she used, which led them to the affair with Petraeus, according to The Wall Street Journal.

 In George Orwell’s novel, 1984, people were constantly reminded, “Big Brother is watching you.” There is no need to constantly watch us now when the digital technology we use can be used against us.

A new word has come into vogue: frenemy. First used in 1953, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, it means:

A person with whom one is friendly, despite a fundamental dislike or rivalry; a person who combines the characteristics of a friend and an enemy.

Maybe that’s what digital technology is – a frenemy. We can’t do without it, but it can be used against us.

One feels sorry for Michael Palmer, his wife and the other woman.  A promising political career has been ruined, a woman has had to give up her job. Meanwhile, we can read in a newspaper some of the messages they exchanged about “love” and “massages” and “mangoes”.  Can’t anything be private in a digital world?