GettyImages_dv348030.jpgAmong the pros (and cons) of having a cell phone is that you don’t have to stay chained to your desk anymore. Now you can do business anywhere you have phone coverage. But sometimes we are so consumed by the convenience of being able to conduct business on the go, that we forget the risks.

For instance, in the past two weeks, we’ve sat in on a lengthy meeting between a high-ranking cable television executive and his staff as they made key primetime programming decisions.  The types of decisions that, if leaked, would undoubtedly be of interest to advertisers. We’ve learned the details of a wealthy family’s estate plans, including where they bank and in what companies they’ve most heavily invested.  We’ve also heard a lawyer involved in an ongoing high-profile litigation brief his colleagues on the case. While he was discreet enough to not name the parties involved, a search on a legal database relying on the various details he revealed quickly pulled up the case.

Did these people confide in us because they’re our clients? Did they share this information with us certain that we’d respect their confidences? Hardly. We don’t even know these people’s names and yet we’re privy to all sorts of private and confidential information.

So how did we manage that? Plain and simple eavesdropping while in public places. In these cases, by overhearing phone conversations while on planes and trains. And yes, yes, it’s far from polite to eavesdrop. But it often doesn’t take much to overhear a loud phone conversation conducted by the people around you. 

Most people know better than to talk business details with a colleague in a crowded elevator, or at a restaurant. The risk of being overheard is just too great. But these days it seems that anywhere people are in a confined space for a long period of time—be it trains, train stations, planes, airports, shopping centers, restaurants, waiting in line at the post office, at the salon, or getting your shoes shined—you can hear confidential information by eavesdropping on people’s phone callsPresumably you’ve noticed it too? And not just personal information as people hash out the details of their love lives, or discuss their health woes in vivid detail. But the type of information that an executive or an attorney is tasked with keeping strictly private

Presumably people discussing business in public (wrongly) assume two things:

  • One, that the people around them are far from a threat. We’d like to think that’s the case but in this day and age, that seems a little naïve.
  • And two, that they themselves are not threatening any confidences because the folks hearing them gab away are only hearing one half of a conversation. But as our experience with the trial lawyer proves, sometimes half of a conversation is plenty. In the case of the estate lawyer, he was wise enough to not mention his clients by name. Instead, he sloppily laid out his clients’ financial documents all over his sitting area. So while his half of the conversation wasn’t enough to figure out who he was discussing, those of us sitting nearby only had to glance over at his stack of paperwork to figure out who he represented.

Everyone thinks they’re discreet. Everyone thinks they’re professional. But neither can be true if they’re conducting their business via phone amongst strangers.