When someone butt-calls, should you listen?

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It’s happened to everyone. We answer the phone only to find no one who wants to talk to us on the other end. Instead, we got called accidentally and are now privy to a conversation to which we were not invited. Should we listen? What if it’s really good?

A federal court decided last week that listening in on the telephone after being pocket dialed did not violate the pocket dialer’s privacy rights. Carol Spaw, the executive assistant to the chief executive of the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport, got a call from James Huff, who chaired the airport’s board. She answered the phone only to find herself listening in as Huff and the board’s vice chair discussed illegally terminating Spaw’s boss. Rather than hanging up, Spaw took notes on and even recorded the conversation. For ninety minutes she kept listening as Huff ended that conversation, walked to his hotel room, and told his wife what had happened.

When Huff learned what Spaw had done, he and his wife sued her for violating federal law prohibiting recording private telephone calls. But the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals held that she had not violated Huff’s privacy: after calling Spaw, even accidentally, Huff could not then complain that she listened in.

The court did not give us carte blanche to listen in on butt-dialed calls. Technically, the court’s decision is only law in Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee and Michigan, but other federal courts will probably hold the same thing. California has its own Invasion of Privacy Act that prohibits eavesdropping or recording private conversations. Not only do violators of the law face felony charges, but their victims can sue them for penalties starting at $5,000. A California court need not agree that accidentally dialing someone eliminates any privacy in a conversation.

Most importantly, a conversation by its nature involves at least two people, only one of whom butt dials. Even if Spaw did not invade Huff’s privacy, she still invaded his wife’s. And listening in on conversations in the marital bedroom goes beyond creepy.

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