Any foreign journalist who operated in China 20 or more years ago can tell stories about someone listening in on their telephone conversations.
There were even apocryphal accounts of calls in obscure European dialects being cut off and an exasperated listener requesting that the conversation shift to a more mainstream language.
It was always worth assuming that someone was listening, and taking care of what one said on the phone became almost a subconscious habit.
The way I saw it – when I thought about it at all – I had a responsibility to entertain those listening, to liven up what surely is mostly a desperately dreary job.
Fast forward. The vastly greater number of calls being made today by an exponentially greater number of people surely make such personalized service more difficult. But there are those who say they have evidence that the listening continues. To mobile phone conversations, that is.
It is widely assumed that the US authorities scan all calls made domestically and perhaps some overseas, using automated systems to search for certain keywords and vocal signatures to help track down nasties.
Mobile phone technology certainly allows people with the right access to pinpoint the location of a phone, and it is reasonable to assume that the authorities in all countries use this technology to some extent.
But what of Skype, and other online VoIP voice chat programs? If I make a call from one computer to another using Skype, can anyone in the middle intercept and monitor the conversation?
Non-exhaustive investigations suggest that, at this point, they cannot. The voice data gets divided up into myriad packets, which buzz off through the internet. Skype to an outside number can still be monitored on the outside phone line, of course.
This is all reflective of the growing difficulties that the spread of the internet poses in terms of control. Imposing controls on bloggers is a high profile way to irritate people, but just how effective is it in the face of a determined blogger? Not very.
There are so many ways to blog these days. It must be a thankless task trying to monitor all the blogs out there.
A Chinese official stated at a UN meeting in Athens that China engages in absolutely no filtering of internet websites, causing much merriment. A Microsoft representative said the company might consider pulling out of China unless the authorities started to take a more liberal approach to bloggers.
Both of them have got to be kidding.
Meanwhile, the internet’s impact on Chinese society – which is far far deeper than on Western society – continues to grow. But maybe no one is listening.