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Tripp taping raises issue of high-tech privacy invasion

Somewhere between the double luge and the triple axel comes another Olympic moment: the minidrama of Angela and Bobby Templeton.

In this ad, repeated more frequently than Hermann Maier's spectacular spill, our gal Angela confides the name of the boy who is the object of her affection to her junior high girlfriends. These Linda Tripps-in-training then turn around and immediately send this gossip out on e-mail, cell phone, pager and every form of communication known to AT&T.Faster than you can say Picabo Street, the entire world, including mom and Bobby, gets the news. And Angela winds up with the gold medal in embarrassment.

The ad is supposed to be selling the virtues of high-speed communication, and maybe it is a perfect example of the interface between technology and trivia. Watching this from my vacation idyll last week, it struck me that all of modern science had culminated in this single achievement: to outstrip the speed of notes in study hall. It even enables us to beam Monica Lewinsky to a Caribbean island.

All of this brings me back, via Angela to Monica, to the object of high-tech violations and low standards of privacy. The subject of confidences kept and blown, subpoenaed and hacked.

The whole Washington scandal has been a lesson - and not a very pretty one - in trust and duplicity, in the expectations and invasions of personal life.

It all began when Linda Tripp turned on Lewinsky faster than the Russian gold medalist Ilya Kulik turned on his skates. Wired for sound, Tripp violated every canon of friendship and who knows how many laws.

Since then we've seen other friends dining out on their Monica stories and spilling their Monica beans. We've seen Kenneth Starr issuing subpoenas like a junior high principal calling students to his office.

We've seen, as well, a shaken Marcia Lewis emerge after being interrogated under a law that holds mother-daughter conversations to be less confidential than lawyer-client.

Now we are logging onto the next chapter, Newsweek's story of Lewinsky e-mails. Not just those printed out by Tripp but those hacked out by Starr's techies. The special prosecutor is now playing hardball with the hard drive.

This is an invasion of privacy that reaches home to millions of Americans. Or to be more accurate, that reaches "office" to millions of Americans.

About 27 percent of working Americans now use e-mail on the job. If I am any guide, we are more afraid of accidental deletions - OOPS! - than deliberate scanning of the stuff that we send back and forth over the electronic water cooler.

Stories abound, of Freudian slips of the finger, of sending an e-mail about someone to that someone. Private messages are mistakenly directed to an entire company. But few of us who worry constantly about hard disks crashing have worried about messages being immortalized.

As Monica supposedly e-mailed to Linda: "HHHEEELLPPP!!!! Maybe we can have lunch . . . "

A survey by the American Management Association says 35 percent of their members monitor employee e-mail, as well as phone calls, voice mail and computer files. Worse yet, the courts have generally ruled that the company that owns the equipment owns the e-mail.

To me, this is like saying that the boss has the right to tape what's said over my desk because he owns the furniture. Does Big Corp. have the right to listen in on words exchanged in its wholly owned cafeteria?

Of course, in theory - management theory - none of us is supposed to send personal e-mails. The percentage of people who abide by this rule is roughly equivalent to the percentage of people who have never made a personal phone call.

If this scandal has done anything besides keeping the Internet chat rooms full of sex jokes, it's proved that there has to be a zone, a queue, a delete command, a line of privacy. That goes for anyone from the Biggest Creep to the lowliest employee. That means private from anyone - from your boss to the special prosecutor.

When Linda first tripped up Monica with a wire, the ACLU asked, "What would you think if you made a telephone call last night and then read about it in the morning paper?" Now we ask, how about finding your juiciest e-mail on the office bulletin board? Or Starr's desk?

All Angela had to face in the end was an adorable and rather flattered Bobby Templeton. For the rest of us, it's back to the water cooler for gossip. But before you say a word, remember: Pat your buddy down.

The Boston Globe Newspaper Co.