The Shocking Things I’ve Overheard on the Acela

How to understand your data
Oct. 25 2013 6:50 PM

The Acela Spy

The shocking things I’ve learned by eavesdropping on Amtrak.

Michael Hayden
Former NSA Director Michael Hayden was overheard on the phone to reporters on an Amtrak train. It happens more often than you might think.

Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images

On Amtrak, powerful people talk loudly and spill secrets.

This is my conclusion based on five years’ field research commuting on Amtrak’s Acela between cities along the East Coast.

By now, you’ve heard about former NSA director Michael Hayden, who on Thursday talked nonstop to a reporter—on background—as the train went north from Washington, D.C. toward New York City. A few seats behind Hayden was Tom Matzzie, former Washington director of political group MoveOn.org, who started live-tweeting his eavesdropping.

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As someone who rides the Acela two to three times a week, I can tell you that what Hayden and Matzzie each did—talking loud and tweeting louder—isn’t unusual. In fact, private conversations are so often broadcast across the train car that it’s become fertile ground for competitive intelligence gathering, business development or, as in Matzzie’s case, gaining a whole bunch of new social media followers.

It’s astonishingly easy to become an Acela spy—even if you don’t really want to be a part of other riders’ business—as I have learned from years of experience. Until very recently, all Amtrak tickets were paper-based, and the tickets looked a lot like airline boarding passes. In addition to the train and destination information, they included the passenger’s full name in the upper left-hand corner. Also until recently, those tickets were wedged between the top of the cushion and the hard back of each seat, with the name showing for anyone who desired to look. (E-tickets on mobile phones are starting to replace paper tickets for some riders.)

It has been my practice to board the train, and then walk up and down the aisle to glance at the names on those tickets. I’ve also taken note of who’s sitting in what seat. I’ve avoided some people (Chelsea Handler), and I’ve purposely sat down next to others whom I wanted to meet (a C-suite executive at an investment bank).

Shortly after we leave the station and I’ve done my rounds, the mobile phones invariably come out. When they do, I take note of who’s talking, what’s being said, and the name I saw on the ticket.

Amtrak trains don’t have the same whoosh of ambient noise as an airplane in flight. The cars are pretty quiet. If anything, sound reverberates and amplifies inside that confined space. Once, Sheryl Crow was sitting across from me with her headphones on, rehearsing for a performance at the White House. I’m sure she thought she was barely whispering, but those of us in the back of the car were treated to a sweet, soulful tiny train concert.

A few months ago, two men joined me at a four-top and placed their tickets on the table. I briefly looked at their names and their faces, and found them instantly on LinkedIn and Twitter. Within minutes, I knew that one was the global head of human resources at a very large bank. I knew where he went to university, who he was meeting with in Washington, and what he intended to discuss. While I listened—though is it eavesdropping when a conversation takes place at normal volume in a seat next to you?—I pulled an aerial photo of his house off the Web. He and his co-worker—a head of sales at the bank—obviously weren’t close. As they small-talked their way from New York City to Newark, the sales guy talked glowingly of a college football career. He didn’t mention what I already knew about him, which is that he was a placekicker, and had spent most of the time off the field.

Soon, their conversation turned to a female co-worker who’d returned from maternity leave. Sales guy complained aggressively that while she’d been out of the office for so long, the software they used had upgraded. There was no way she’d ever get caught up, he argued. She had the audacity to put in for a promotion, after being gone for three months!

HR guy concurred. Women were a major distraction, holding back productivity and advancement at their bank. It was a shame they couldn’t legally fire a woman for getting—or even wanting to get—pregnant. It was a worse shame that they had to hire women in the first place.

I went on a Twitter rampage of my own:

I’ve overheard assistants making private jet arrangements for the Susan G. Komen Foundation, a national news media personality complain about his network, a woman tell a Lands’ End call-center employee that her dad was dying and she hadn’t spoken to him in a decade. I listened to an RNC staffer say she was launching a conservative website, then drop a bunch of backer names.

Mobile phones aren’t the only problem, though. One of the regular riders on my route, a German man who dresses in very expensive suits, reminds me of Augustus Gloop, all grown up but just as childish and awful. Once, an Amtrak attendant dropped some sliced fruit on his pant leg. Augustus Gloop made her get down on her knees and wipe off the table, his shoes, and his thighs.

I was incensed, but not mad as the woman next to me that day, who immediately hate-Instagrammed him.

The Acela offers free Wi-Fi, it has comfy seats, and I’ve found it to be the best way to move around my part of the East Coast. It’s not like riding an airplane, where we’re strapped in and told how to brace ourselves should the plane start to crash. As passengers, our guards are down. We’re relaxed, we unwind with a drink, and we settle into the sorts of conversations better served for private spaces.

The problem is that trains—even in first class, where I’ve observed the worst offenders—aren’t private. They’re very public venues, just like Twitter. And just like on Twitter, sometimes we forget that we’re actually on stage as we reveal our own worst private selves to the outside world.

My hunch is that most of us don’t really want to hear those other conversations. We’re accidental spies, initially irritated by the noise and then enticed by the details of the conversation.

Amy Webb writes a column about data for Slate. She's the head of Webbmedia Group, a digital strategy agency, the author of Data, A Love Story and the co-founder of Spark Camp.

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