When ousted Barclays chief executive Bob Diamond says he felt “physically ill” reading e-mails of his traders crowing over interest-rate manipulation, he is almost certainly telling the truth.
The veteran banker says it was the first he knew that employees had worked to artificially inflate the London interbank overnight rate (LIBOR). Whatever the reality, he must have realized that the saved messages — with employees glorying in their activities and promising each other champagne — could only add to the damage.
Businesses, governments, individuals and institutions around the world are all gradually waking up to the same realization. In the 21st century, anything written down electronically, even in confidence, can be stolen or subpoenaed and come back to haunt the writer — and others — years later.
The Barclays scandal which cost Diamond his job seems only the tip of the iceberg.
“E-mail, Twitter, texting and the rest all intuitively feel like short-fuse ephemeral communications — a quick word in passing, if you will,” said John Bassett, a former senior official at British signals intelligence agency GCHQ and now a senior fellow at London’s Royal United Services Institute. “Yet as soon as we push the send button, these communications take on an enduring digital permanence that means that in effect they never quite go away.”
As the US government discovered with WikiLeaks, huge volumes of information can be lifted in a single go by one determined and skilled computer user. Sophisticated algorithms and search programs can strip through millions or more files in seconds rather than the weeks it might have taken for a team of human specialists.
Alternatively, the whole dataset can simply be dumped on the Web or handed to newspapers and other media outlets, as WikiLeaks did this week with thousands of Syrian government e-mails, including negotiations with Western arms firms.
The danger does not just come from hackers or criminals. Plenty of companies have been legally required to surrender huge volumes of electronic documents to national authorities or legal adversaries.
Already, practices are changing as a host of professionals learn what it takes to stay off the grid.
Telephone calls, they realize, might well be safer than e-mail — although in many companies, landline calls are already recorded. Even if mobile phone calls are not, the service provider meticulously records who dials who, and how long the conversation lasts.
Even the simple act of signing a visitor into a building is often now stored for ever in an electronic vault, easily extracted by law enforcers, a legal challenge or, for some governments at least, a “Freedom of Information Act” request.
However, there are always new techniques.
In Washington, political operatives say a branch of Caribou Coffee near the White House has become the standard location for administration staffers to meet lobbyists they would rather not sign in to the West Wing.
Around the world, cafes, trade fairs and the corporate areas of major sporting events have all become venues for frenetic, serious — and largely unrecorded — conversations.
When traders and others in large financial institutions now want to discuss a matter privately, insiders say they often use a simple code — “LDL,” or “let’s discuss live,” a request for a face-to-face meeting.