Becks, texts and a message for us all

There are few hiding places today for those who break their marriage vows, or even the law. Charles Arthur looks at how technology can catch you out. Then again, it might save your life
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The Independent Online

It may be good to talk but it can be dangerous to text. In its short history the mobile phone has claimed some high-profile victims. It has helped in the overthrow of governments, the tarnishing of the monarchy and now it threatens one of the most famous names in sport.

It may be good to talk but it can be dangerous to text. In its short history the mobile phone has claimed some high-profile victims. It has helped in the overthrow of governments, the tarnishing of the monarchy and now it threatens one of the most famous names in sport.

Newspaper readers tried yesterday to fill in the blanks in the asterisk-laden exchanges allegedly sent between David Beckham and his former personal assistant Rebecca Loos.

David and Victoria Beckham were putting on a united front after two days of damaging headlines on the state of their marriage prompted by the publication of the lurid text messages. The Real Madrid midfielder has flown to be with his family in Switzerland, insisting the reports of an affair were "ludicrous". Ms Loos's brother John claimed yesterday that the allegations were true, while Beckham's father, Ted, refused to comment.

As well as the damage to his marriage, Beckham has been left to count the cost to "Beckham ­ the brand". He enjoys an estimated £20m worth of sponsorship deals with companies including Pepsi, Adidas and Police sunglasses, eager to exploit his family-man image in a sport which has been tainted by sex allegations.

It ironic that another of Beckham's major contracts is with Vodafone. The mobile phone giant was banned in September 2002 from airing a series of adverts (not featuring Beckham) that suggested using text messages as a form of foreplay. "Get your flirting over first," it said, over a series of pictures of couples apparently getting turned on by what they were reading on their phones' displays.

Text messages were never intended for what they're being used for now ­ bringing down governments, organising demonstrations, and the occasional adulterous affair. Had they remained in the domain they were designed for, the only people texting each other would be telephone engineers.

"It was intended as a back channel," explained Will Cameron, spokesman for Logica CMG. "It was so that engineers could send each other messages when there were problems on the network."

But Logica's engineers saw the medium's potential; and in December 1992 one of their number (identity unknown) sent the world's first commercial text message. Although messages were limited to 160 characters, they were an immediate hit, especially because on pay-as-you-go phones they were often cheaper than making a voice call.

Fast forward to the present day, and we are sending each other nearly two billion text messages per month. It's a huge upheaval in the way that we keep in touch: you can send a text from a phone where the signal may be too weak to hold a conversation. And, if you're the right age group, then you can surely hold a conversation while composing and sending a text. It always spoke volumes about the pop group Atomic Kitten that they were once seen practising their stage act while busily texting their friends.

Text messages have been used to engineer the downfall of governments at least twice. In the Philippines, they were important in spreading the message to organise demonstrations against President Joseph Estrada in 2001. More recently, in Spain, predictions that the general election turnout would be low were confounded, and text messages were crucial in organising people to get out and vote.

But that is only perhaps the most political illustration of the way the world has changed. In the past 15 years, we have grown used to being able to stay in touch wherever we are, and in whatever way we want: first by talking on mobile phones, then sending text messages, then by e-mail, and latterly through other technologies such as instant messaging (on computers) that keep us always connected.

Text messages have become identified with affairs because of their supposed discretion ­ there is no chance of being overheard.

The Canadian supply teacher Amy Gehring, who stood trial in 2002 for seducing under-age boys at a Surrey school, was accused of using text messaging to contact the boys after school hours.

She was found not guilty, but did admit texting one pupil to ask if they had had sex after a night out, saying she was too drunk to remember.

But what's gone mostly unnoticed ­ although perhaps not to the Beckhams now ­ is the way that we leave electronic footprints wherever we go. They are, in most cases, impossible to eradicate. In the old days, it was a lot simpler: billets doux could be retrieved and thrown in the fireplace, making proof elusive for the accuser.

Nowadays the reality is that text messages, like most forms of electronic communication, are stored not only on the devices that create and receive them (think of all the e-mails you've sent lurking on your computer's hard disk) but also on some of the devices that they pass through on their way to their destination. Your mobile phone operator stores them; your recipient's mobile phone operator stores them.

Even if you delete the incriminating messages from your phone, they are still there in at least three other places, two of which you have absolutely no chance of accessing ­ although the police would normally be able to get at them.

Ditto for e-mail and the documents we send which have been shown to linger far longer in the system than might be expected. Or, in the case of a passionate e-mail sent by Claire Swire to her boyfriend ­ and from him to his friends, and from them to their friends, until it seemed the whole world knew their private thoughts ­ they can spread far more widely than was ever possible in the days before this electronic technology. Simon Davies, director of the advocacy group Privacy International, believes that as technology advances further into our lives, our expectations of privacy from it will actually be eroded ­ with results that could be surprising. "People don't think about the potential for invasion of privacy through new technologies, rather as they don't think about their own death," said Mr Davies.

"At an intellectual level they are aware of the threat to privacy that these things entail. But in their day-to-day life they can't consider the implications, because that would be too onerous."

Yet just as the "Tampax" transcripts of Prince Charles talking to Camilla, and the "Squidgy" tapes of Princess Diana talking to a lover, eroded people's confidence that their conversations could not be overheard, so the revelations about David Beckham will change our expectations about where privacy begins and ends on mobile phones. Mr Davies said: "What happens as this seeps into people's consciousness is that they limit the sensitivity of their communications. I think that within half a generation people will be reluctant to express more than absolute facts over the text message system."

But it's not only what you say that can be revealed through the mobile network. Location details are equally vulnerable. The police can already test alibis against mobile network records: if you have a mobile phone that is switched on, then even if you don't make or receive a call, every half-hour or so it will connect to the network's "base stations" to confirm its presence. The network records which base station talked to the phone, so your location can be determined to as little as 10 metres in some city locations; in rural areas, the radius would be more like kilometres.

And if, as the mobile networks want, "location-sensing" phones are the next to appear, which allow you to tell someone else precisely where your phone is on a map, then will you use it? Anyone planning an illicit rendezvous might pause to consider that such details would almost certainly be recorded ­ along with the details of the connecting phone.

Yet it's also undeniable that the ability to find out what people have been doing with their mobile phones has had beneficial effects. It aided the conviction of Ian Huntley, the Soham murderer, who swapped text messages with Maxine Carr hours before he killed two schoolgirls, proving that she was in Grimsby rather than Soham, as he originally claimed.

It also provided clear evidence in the conviction of Paul Browning, a truck driver, who was sentenced to five years' imprisonment in February 2001 after being convicted of sending a text message while driving at more than 50 mph ­ at which point he lost control of the truck and veered off the road, killing a pedestrian.

On the same day that Browning was sentenced, the tale emerged of Rebecca Fyfe, who was stranded on a boat with engine problems off the coast of Bali. With no satellite equipment or emergency radio on board, she texted her boyfriend ­ in England. He called the Thames Coastguard; they called their Falmouth office, who called the Australian coastguard, who called the Indonesian embassy in Canberra, who called the Indonesian authorities, who sent out an Indonesian navy gunboat from Lombok to search for the boat ­ and, eventually, found it.

Rachel Kelsey, who was stranded for two nights in a blizzard in the Swiss Alps, was rescued by helicopter after texting a friend in London. The experienced climber sent an SOS message to a friend in Battersea, south London, who contacted a mountain rescue team in Zurich.

So it's not text messages that are bad. It's just the abuses. And if our expectations of their inherent privacy are eroded, that would hurt the aims of the mobile operators, who have profited hugely from the mounting popularity of SMS ­ and especially its connection with sex.