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Is It OK That My Sister Secretly Records Our Dad for Laughs?

My sister revealed that she often records phone conversations that she has with our father without his knowledge. She says she does it because …

My sister revealed that she often records phone conversations that she has with our father without his knowledge. She says she does it because he is so “funny,” i.e., eccentric, but I get the impression that she is laughing more at him than with him. I find his conversations less humorous than distressing, since he is often, at the best of times, in a state of heightened psychological dysregulation and anxiety, and the pandemic has just made things worse. Because of my sister’s behavior, my niece has grown up thinking there’s nothing wrong or unethical with recording conversations without the other person’s knowledge or consent and has herself started to do this.

When I found out what my sister was doing, I was uneasy and told her that it was illegal to record someone without their consent. Her rapid retort was, “It’s not in New York,” where she lives, as if that made it OK. I did not address my ethical concerns and am uncertain how to do so now, because my sister can be rather vicious, and I fear her wrath. At the same time, I think that it’s terrible that she is recording my father, who would feel hurt and humiliated if he knew, and that her daughter is learning that this is OK. It flies in the face of the Golden Rule. I’ve thought about telling my father but don’t think that’s a good course of action. I don’t know what effect my calling her to task on the behavior would have except to alienate her. Do I just let it all go? Just because Siri and Alexa do it all the time — I do not own or support use of either — doesn’t mean the rest of us should. Name Withheld

“It isn’t illegal” is the first refuge of a scoundrel — or anyway, of people who know they’re doing something sketchy. Many of the most hurtful, cruel and despicable things people do are perfectly lawful. (And some unlawful things are perfectly harmless.) The point isn’t that it’s always wrong to record people without their consent. There are instances in which a citizen may well have reason to record a conversation with a law-enforcement officer, for example. But in family conversations, we have a reasonable expectation that our remarks are not being captured for posterity. Your sister is betraying your father’s trust.

How serious the betrayal is depends, in part, on what she’s doing with these recordings. Is she playing them back to herself for kicks and giggles before drifting off to sleep? Or does she share clips with a WhatsApp group chat? In any case, she probably wouldn’t be making them if they weren’t going to be listened to, and you’re rightly troubled by actions that would wound your father if he knew about them.

I can’t advise you on the diplomacy here, but your reference to the Golden Rule suggests that you might ask her to imagine how she’d feel about a friend who secretly recorded conversations with her, replaying them to whomever she pleased. In one way or another, you should let your sister know that what she’s doing isn’t OK. You might tell her too that if she doesn’t stop, you’ll have to consider letting your father know what’s up, so that he can decide if and how he wants to talk to her on the phone.

I hope he can be spared that. While I’m generally in favor of letting people know the truth about the people around them, I suspect that the value to him of learning what she has done won’t be worth the pain. If your sister plans to continue, however, the issue isn’t just about the past, which is unchangeable, but about the future, which isn’t. And it’s possible that the pain of this knowledge would be outweighed by the value of ending this humiliating abuse. But you’re best positioned to make that judgment, and your talk of his emotional dysregulation and anxiety suggests that he may not be able to respond appropriately.

Your description of your sister, in turn, suggests that she exhibits another version of emotional dysregulation. Yet this shouldn’t be a hall pass for bad behavior. If, as I hope, you convey your concerns to her and stand up for what you believe, will she respect you more? Or just unleash the wrath you fear? I won’t venture a guess. But unless that wrath extends to more than railing at you, you’ll recover soon enough, and with the reassurance that you weren’t complicit in an unsavory practice.

Finally, a few points about those digital voice assistants you mention. First, the tech giants who offer these services — like Google, Amazon and Apple — have told us that they’re recording us. Second, they have taken some measures to anonymize the material. And third, users have the option of taking protective measures: They can, say, clear Siri’s history in an iPhone’s device menu or adjust Alexa’s privacy settings so that audio recordings will be deleted after some interval or simply never retained. (“Alexa, delete everything I said today” works, too.) These services may not function as well in these conditions, but it’s up to us to decide what trade-offs we’re comfortable with. Your sister isn’t providing your father any such choices.

A little over 20 years ago, when I first graduated from college, I did volunteer work at a South American orphanage where I bonded with one 3-year-old child. I have several photos of him from my time there, as well as photos of his extended family, who came to visit at one point. After I returned home, a fellow volunteer let me know this child had been adopted by a family here in the States. Recently, I came across the name and town of the adoptive family in an old file. With some simple Googling, I found this child, now a young man, along with his mother and her work email. As a mother myself, I felt it would be respectful to reach out to her first. I emailed explaining who I was, how I knew her child and that I had some photos he might be interested in having. I never got a response. It’s possible that she didn’t get my email or that she doesn’t want her son to think back on his previous life. But now I’m left wondering what to do. Am I overstepping? Maura, Maplewood, N.J.

Given that the young man in those photos is now an adult, it’s not up to his mother to decide for him whether he gets the pictures. So if there’s a way to get hold of him directly — and it involves no breach of professional confidences — you’re surely free to do that. Had the mother known of some reason that it would be better if you didn’t, she should have said so.

Recently, an old high school acquaintance started reaching out to me — almost daily — through a video-chat feature on a social media app. During high school, he was a difficult, self-absorbed personality who wouldn’t hesitate to hurt someone in our circle if it afforded him some advantage. As a consequence, I and many of my friends distanced ourselves from this person. I have not seen this person in over 30 years, but I had heard that he experienced brain damage from a drug overdose several years ago. I accepted a friend request from him on social media some time ago but have not spoken with him. My spouse and other friends and family have advised that I not engage with him, that I’ll end up going down a rabbit hole trying to provide friendship to someone I distanced myself from for good reason. I feel bad, however, knowing that he has been compromised, and I expect he doesn’t have a lot of social contact. Am I obligated to answer his calls and provide him with the social contact I expect he’s seeking? Name Withheld

Obligated? No. The connection you have with this man is too remote to generate a substantial duty. But if your assessment of his situation is correct, it would certainly be kind to offer him some measure of online companionship.

Still, there’s a risk here, as your counselors warn, that what starts out as a small act of generosity builds into a substantial set of obligations. (It’s notable that he’s contacting you regularly without, I take it, much encouragement.) You ought to start down this route only if you’re willing to accept those more substantial responsibilities should they arise — or if you make sure to pull away before you find yourself with commitments you aren’t willing or able to live up to.

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