June 12, 2007

Secret code sharing

Normally we use language to be forthright and to be understood. Occasionally, however, people use a language code to disguise the meaning of what they're saying. Language is a code in itself, of course -- a formal system of communication shared by its users. But there are also codes within codes, used by people who don't want to share information with outsiders. Such codes deliberately isolate information from others in ways that regularly understood language would not. Codes are used for many reasons, including security (as in times of war), efficiency (as in occupations), intimacy (as in clubs or social groups), or secrecy (as in the prevention of detection). Code sharing, as the term is currently being used, is fine when used within the group that understands it, but when it causes confusion to those outsiders not in-the-know, it can be irritating and troublesome.

Mark Liberman's comments on airline code sharing prompted some memories of past criminal cases I've worked on, when codes were used to prevent any outsiders who might be listening in from understanding what was being said. In the 1983 case of the grandma mafia, three otherwise respectable looking grandmas in the women's clothing business carried out an Asian cocaine operation under the guise of selling "blouses" and "skirts," which turned out to refer to different types and quantities of illegal drugs.

I also thought of a 1988 case in which I was asked by the US House of Representatives, Committee on the Judiary, Subcommittee on Criminal Justice, to review the 1981 audio tapes in a case involving then Federal Judge Alcee Hastings. Co-defendant William A. Borders was convicted in that case but Hastings was  not. Nevertheless, the government thought Hastings' participation in those tapes sounded very suspicious. So they brought impeachment hearings against him. In an earlier post. I described some of my analysis in  that case.

The codes used in these two cases were partial and disguised. Outsiders were not supposed to understand their intended meaning. Now the airlines' use of code sharing introduces a somewhat different concept of "code" as well as "sharing." The code seems to be legitimately shared within and between airlines and other businesses that use the term. There's nothing particularly wrong with that. The problem is that those of us not in that business and not yet fully aware of its meaning find it confusing, pretty much the way Mark did (by the way, we hope he made his San Francisco transfer). He calls code sharing "a sort of digital-bureaucratic morass of reciprocal failed reference." That's a pretty good description of an unshared code.

It's hard to locate code sharing in any of the four types of codes I listed in my first paragraph: security, efficiency, intimacy, and secrecy. Surely code sharing isn't the product of any perceived airline dangers and it's doubtful that it's an effort at intimacy, at least not intimacy with the customers. That leaves efficiency and secrecy as the best candidates. It's probably efficient, for the airlines at least, and as for secrecy, well, the secret gradually is coming out.

Maybe this is only one more instance of letting the buyer beware. Maybe passengers are expected to figure this out for themselves. Mark had his computer with him and his post gave us the Wikipedia link defining code sharing. For another one, see here. It's a bit more critical than Wiki. But what we usually don't know is what Mark found out the hard way. When airlines code share, what this really means is that passengers can't get seat assignments on those legs of their flights that the originating carrier doesn't fly -- until they reach the gate of the next leg. It also means that the equipment used on the non-originating flight is not always made clear. The airlines don't share that part with us, at least not openly. And they haven't tried very hard to let us in on their little secret, still another step in the continuing reduction of service we get these days.

Posted by Roger Shuy at June 12, 2007 05:41 PM