I’m just joking. If I were a betting man (“Which, thank the Lord, I’m not, sir”), I’d wager that it was the original meaning of this phrase that popped into your head; that is, to warn someone that it’s not safe to speak because other people may be listening.
As part of writing this, I just FaceTimed my mom, who was nine years old when WWII broke out. She says she recalls posters saying things like “Loose Lips Sink Ships,” “Careless Talk Costs Lives,” “He Talked, They Died,” and — of course — “Walls Have Ears.”
As an aside, I just ran across a book called The Walls Have Ears: The Greatest Intelligence Operation of World War II by Helen Fry. I’m not sure, but I think this may cover something we were told when I visited Bletchley Park a couple of years ago with my mom. Bletchley Park was, of course, the top-secret home of the UK’s WWII code-breakers. This was where Alan Turing and his colleagues created an electromechanical device called the Bombe, which was used by the British cryptologists to help decipher German Enigma-machine-encrypted secret messages. We were told that captured German generals were housed nearby and that their conversations were bugged, thereby revealing lots of secrets. I just ordered a copy of The Walls Have Ears and I shall report back further in the future.
The phrase “The Walls Have Ears” was first recorded in its present English form in 1620, but the origin of the saying may actually date to circa 400 BC because the tale is told that Dionysius of Syracuse had the rooms in his palace connected via an “ear-shaped cave” (whatever that means) such that he could be in one room and hear what was being said in another.
But we digress… the reason for my meandering musings is that I was listening to an interview on the National Public Radio (NPR) on the way home yesterday evening. The topic of the talk was a recently released book called The Voice Catchers: How Marketers Listen in to Exploit Your Feelings, Your Privacy, and Your Wallet by Joseph Turow.
In this interview, Joseph was talking about all sorts of things that could be headed our way really soon. Imagine coughing, for example, and having your Amazon Alexa say, “That sounds nasty, do you want me to order some throat lozenges — I could have them here in an hour?” Or how about your Amazon Halo wristband listening to your conversations throughout the day and communicating its findings to your Amazon Alexa, who proceeds to tell you that you sounded tense when talking to your supervisor, condescending when communicating with your subordinate, and angry when addressing your spouse?
It’s not going to be long before all of our devices (phones, televisions, thermostats, smoke alarms…) and appliances (refrigerators, ovens, microwaves, dishwashers…) and things like automobiles are equipped with the ability to see what’s happening, listen to what we say, and talk amongst themselves (or to other humans) when our backs are turned.
It was bad enough when only the walls had ears. It’s going to be far worse when everything has ears. What say you (it may be best for you to whisper your response)?