When is a spy-pen not a spy-pen? Don't expect a politician to know

When is a spy-pen not a spy-pen? Don't expect a politician to know

Summary: Those in positions of power need to have a better grasp of new technology than anybody else. Unfortunately, experience shows the opposite is true.

Calling a device such as the Livescribe a spy-pen suggests too many figures in authority are a step behind the rest of us when it comes to tech.

You've got to hand it to whoever decided to use 'spy-pen' to describe the device that led to the recent resignation of the chairman of a Scottish college.

The term has everything: popular relevance, gadget credibility and just that frisson of edgy uncertainty. Damn right, it suggests. Whoever's using one should either be saving the nation from evil tyrants or banged up.

The trouble is, the device at the centre of the controversy is no such thing. The Livescribe pen has been around for a good few years. Yes, it can act as a notes and audio-capture device, in conjunction with special sheets of paper. But calling it a spy-pen is tantamount to calling the average tablet device a spy-pad.

Kirk Ramsay, the chairman in question, stepped down after a row with Scottish education secretary Mike Russell, over a recorded conversation. "It's quite a clunky kind of thing — not the sort of thing you can use without folk knowing," Ramsay told The Scotsman. "I have had it for three and a half to four years — you can buy it on Amazon."

The episode is a good indicator of the attitude to technology displayed by our heads of government. Note that no information was leaked, or intended to be. Merely the use of such a device was enough for Ramsay to have to consider his position.

In the worst case, it suggests that Arthur C Clarke's tenet that "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic" holds true even for mainstream device use. While we no longer burn witches at the stake, it appears that practitioners of such magic should still be treated with the kind of distrust usually reserved for travellers and vagrants.

A more generous observer might consider such remarks in the context of the bumbling judge in the 1980s TV series Not The Nine O'Clock News: "Digital watch? What on earth is a digital watch?" he asked, before expressing similar incredulity at a series of innovations that would today only be found in a museum.

What's particularly disappointing is that the Livescribe is actually useful, particularly for those who need to sit through long-winded meetings, which sometimes ramble off the point. The audio function — which is not enabled by default — can be very handy when, weeks later, notes that meant something at the time cease to make sense.

Cutting onerous note-taking

Similar devices are being tested in various parts of UK health service, as a salve to the onerous note-taking nurses, midwives and other frontline staff are expected to incorporate into their already busy schedules.

As another example, consider how much easier it would be for police officers to upload their notes directly into the computer systems they now depend on. Less paperwork should mean better public services.

The question of privacy should not go unanswered — but let's think. Written notes are already admissible as evidence. The potential addition of audio recording should not be ignored but equally it should be a simple question of deciding whether it is acceptable case by case.

Whether such advice is then ignored is no different to how privacy questions are already treated with other devices. Audio does not create any new questions, nor does the form factor of a pen-shaped gadget.

People from a broad cross-section of the population are carrying around powerful recording devices these days, in the form of smartphones. The way things are going in a few years' time, such capabilities will be embedded in just about everything.

It is not simply that figures in authority should accept new technology without thinking. Rather, if they are to set the course of society, they should be one step ahead of the game.

Assumptions about future behaviour

It is a dangerous business to make assumptions about future conventions of behaviour which have no basis in the present. Even more dangerous is to believe no such changes are taking place, or that new behaviours should be stamped on like dealing with unruly schoolchildren.

Right now, our culture is evolving towards a state where our actions and behaviours are increasingly documented, both by individuals and collectives — sometimes state-sponsored. The debate is as important as any in recent times and no-one with any elected role can afford not to understand what a huge shift is taking place.

We're not even scratching the surface. With fixed and mobile broadband access being both costly and fragmented, the idea of real-time streaming — micro-broadcasting — is just a twinkle in the eye of innovation. But it will come, aided and abetted by a generation who does not know what life was like before its existence.

Those in power need to have a better grasp than anybody else about new technology. They can either make decisions that help guide the population in the right direction as such capabilities become entrenched, or they can preach form a position of ignorance even as society changes around them.

It is those who adopt this wilful ignorance who should consider their positions, not those they are failing to serve.

Topics: Emerging Tech, Mobility

Jon Collins

About Jon Collins

Jon Collins is principal adviser at consultancy Inter Orbis. With over 20 years in the technology industry, he has worked in the roles of IT manager and software consultant, project manager, training manager, IT security expert and industry analyst.

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  • I'm unethical then

    I frequently record meetings of importance to ensure key points are not missed. No one has ever objected to it.

    The only conclusion I can draw is that the committee doesn't want some of the comments on record. Question is, why?
    Little Old Man
  • Except when you're ZDNet

    "It is a dangerous business to make assumptions about future conventions of behaviour which have no basis in the present."

    Except when you're ZDNet putting out some lame prediction about the latest buzzword of the year.
  • For seanconnery007

    a pen is for writing with.
    Writing is something you might learn next year, if you're allowed to go up a year at school.

    Just trying help.......
    Little Old Man
  • It's what he did that counts, not what equipment he used.

    That he used a pen containing an audio recorder is immaterial.

    What he did wrong was that he recorded a meeting and distributed that recording to others, without seeking permission from the other person.

    Simple breach of confidentiality that would be subject to disciplinary action in any job.
    Ian Sargent
    • Partly

      There's no difference between audio recording and manual writing. Would the committee members be so enraged if it had been hand written notes? I think you're partly right, the dissemination of information to outside parties was a big factor although, after reading wider reports, it seems more to do with political in-fighting than what the guy actually did.

      Depends on the emphasis given to the meeting. If it was made clear that anything discussed was to remain between the attending parties, yes, worthy of disciplinary action. If not, then I think it's more to with the politics. As above, I have and do record meetings and sometimes provide the transcripts to interested parties. It is certainly not, by default, a case for disciplinary action.
      Little Old Man
      • IANAL

        there is a difference in law between audio and notes in the UK. If you wish to play the recording to any future person you need permission (granted in the recording) to record the conversation. If you use it to write your own transcript and then wish to distribute that then that is ok AFAIK.
  • And there was me thinking

    that this was about a pen with a video recorder in it... I've seen several of those on sale, and they are what I'd call a 'spy pen'... Livescribe is just plain useful in certain situations like meetings, and is no more offensive than a dictaphone. I'd like to bet there's more than one tape recording of that meeting in existence as well.

    @JonCollins Yes, authority figures should be ahead of the game when it comes to technology, but that also means you have to change our authority.
    Because our laws and governance come from a time before technology, we traditionally value age (experience) over intellect. Our government is executed by the same average stupid computer user who uses default passwords and is scared of a command terminal as the 'masses' because they ARE the same people.
    Their bosses - the law makers - on the other hand, are just too old to accept the technology, and they are also the ones who are bound to uphold the traditional system that has served them so well for centuries. The system that provides them all with a comfortable living, that moves at a comfortable pace and requires the agreement of them all to proceed is not about to be replaced by efficiency in any form, let alone technical.

    What we need is a new system of administration that uses technology, not a government who understands it - thats a recipe for abuse. The whole point of technology is empowerment. Morally speaking thats empowerment of humanity, but what you are suggesting is technological autocracy.