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Adapt and Survive

June 2009


There was a tremendous fuss recently about some nasty emails that escaped from Downing Street; they caused at least one chap to lose his job, and generated a lot of ranting from all parties.

As usual with this sort of thing, much of the coverage was as excited about the fact that emails and blogs were involved  than what was in them; for years many reporters have been ascribing some sort of magical newsworthiness to the internet, and some of them still don’t seem to have got used to it. 

The involvement of emails in this case is irrelevant.  Not so many years ago it would have been a memo that leaked , not an email, but the effect would have been the same.

What might have been related to new technology is the means by which the emails came to light, but I doubt it was implicated much there, either.  It is true that emails pass through many hands whilst being delivered and are not much more secure than postcards.  In theory, any one working in that delivery chain could be looking at them.

However, all my instincts tell me that, just as in the old days, this stuff slipped out because a colleague of the sender or recipient took a photocopy and gave it to a Journalist.  You might be astonished to discover how many people in your office have access to your emails – all the IT staff, for starters.  So, I think this was a low-tech, old-fashioned leak. 

But it does beg a question: just how secure is email communication within Government?  If anyone were going to try to break into the delivery chain and look at some emails, it would be Governmental emails that would, I assume, be more likely to yield something that a newspaper might pay for than mine would.

It’s my fervent hope, therefore, that within the Government itself, at least, they use secure emailing.  That works like a scrambler phone; the email is encrypted as it leaves your machine, and decoded at the other end.  Just like the Enigma machines; a virtual code machine at each end, using an agreed key.

Of course, this is no good for use outside the loop, and so Government staff need to have access to normal, insecure email (such as we all use) so that they can communicate with the world.  That’s where the security breaks down.  But don’t blame the internet – it’s leaky people that are at fault, not leaky computers.



On the subject of newsgathering, there is a good row brewing in America involving the Associated Press and Google.  AP is a big news agency that provides news stories to its members – mostly print newspapers.  AP claim that Google is stealing their stories (actually, the word used is “misappropriating”, but you see what they mean) by searching AP and their members’ websites for headlines, which they reproduce,  with a link back to the full story at the AP website.  This, AP says, discourages the purchase of newspapers.  Google, predictably, says it is doing nothing illegal, and has lawyers to prove it.

The brutal fact is that people  no longer expect to pay for news – it is free on television and radio, and fewer and fewer newspaper are sold each day.  Why should news on the internet be any different?

So, rather than moaning, the likes of AP should be concentrating on finding ways of distributing their stories as widely as possible (including through Google) and improving their revenues from advertising.  That, after all, is how almost all TV and Radio services manage.