We can't resist the sound of the lives of others

Eavesdropping can be addictive – as the press and governments know

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The Independent Online

In the game of bridge, one player is always dummy. This means you sit out the round and do nothing, obviously less fun than playing. But the other day, all four of us were desperate for it to be our turn. The reason: at the table next to ours, a power couple (not the Assouns, above) were debating the end of their marriage. We were in a Soho drinking club, and they'd probably had a few. Or maybe they didn't realise how easily they could be heard. Either way, the details distracted us from One No Trump. We were hooked.

Was it wrong of us? Probably. But the lives of others are endlessly fascinating, and impossible to resist if handed to you on a plate. How else to explain the success of Facebook, which has replaced Heat magazine for vicarious gawping? Social media has lured many of us into surrendering our privacy, and we merrily volunteer information previous generations would have been mortified to share. Privacy is now for the old – the young just vomit their lives on to the net.

There's a lot to be said for openness, and not giving a damn about what people think. But nobody wants to lose control of their status updates. It was shocking to learn that Angela Merkel has had her phone tapped, though it seemed a quaintly old-fashioned way for the US to keep tabs on her. Couldn't they just follow her Twitter feed? And for all the harrumphing, what do we think spies do, if not spy?

Gathering information is often a grubby process, as the phone-hacking scandal showed (and the trial starting tomorrow may reveal more). Intelligence is a commodity, and if you run a newspaper, or a spy agency, you can buy it, or steal it, or hope people give it to you for free. Like tomatoes, the quality tends to depend on the price. Of course, there's a difference between overhearing a conversation on a train, as Michael Hayden, the former head of the CIA discovered last week, and hacking someone's phone. But what you do with the information stays the same.

For fiction writers, eavesdropping is vital, but for journalists it rarely bears fruit. I almost feel sorry for the phone hackers who must have sat through hours of voicemails to reel in a scoop. The other night, two of our bridge players were hacks, and neither snitched on the power couple. Maybe sometimes it's OK to listen, as long as you don't tell.