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Press ‘Return’ and be Damned – The Risks of Communicating in the Digital Era

By 23/07/2019 No Comments

The damage done by the leaking of the UK Ambassador’s correspondence, about the President of the United States, is a timely reminder that there are always risks in communicating in a digital world.

 

Sir Kim Darroch’s thoughts of President Trump’s White House (from 2017) were never supposed to be made public, as these were blunt and honest communications, as is the style used by UK ambassadors. Whoever leaked the information was clearly hoping to cause damage of some sort, be it internationally or within UK politics. If discovered, the perpetrator(s) should face the full force of the law; this much is clear.

 

However, this incident might well have have been prevented, if the UK Government, and in particular the FCO, had learnt the lessons from other high profile digital communication leaks, such as the US Wikileaks scandal, the  NSA Edward Snowden leaks, or the hacking of Hilary Clinton’s emails. The lesson is that there is no such thing as a complete security guarantee to electronic communications, no matter how secure, however well-encrypted or how well sent and stored.In this Information Age the Tempo, Scale and Perception of information dissemination, (the speed at which news travels, volume of individuals exposed to the information and how it is received or interpreted) magnify the potential consequences of sensitive information ‘getting out’. And when, in this case, that information contains criticisms of the leader of the UK’s closest ally, then the consequences can be all the more damaging.

 

 

The FCO will have ‘state of the art’ IT security systems in place and aligned procedures that ensure sensitive information is handled with the appropriate security classification caveats. However, alongside this, ambassadors are encouraged to ‘say it how it is’ and to speak truth to power. This frank and honest approach allows the UK Government to assess situations and then make its mind up about decisions and policy. The problem with this approach is that fails to take into consideration the new risks that digital communications have brought to governments. Once an ambassador clicks ‘send’, he or she must trust that the system will protect the information and that relies on both the technology employed and trust in the very people that have access to it. Given that very similar leaks (on a much larger scale) happened to the US Government over the Wikileaks scandal, one would have thought that this incident alone would have been enough to change the way UK Ambassadors report back to London, especially in high profile embassies. It is clear that this has not happened.

 

Thus, ‘the very finest of traditions’ whereby Her Majesty’s Ambassadors can electronically upload their frank assessments, in the knowledge that their candidness will not be compromised and the information will stay secure, is at odds with the new risks that the digital era has brought us. It is time for the FCO to look very carefully at how these dispatches are transmitted, the manner in which they are written and who has access to them. A little bit more ‘Need to Know Basis’ would not go amiss and ‘less is sometimes more’.

 

Lessons Learned

 

  • There is no such things as a totally secure communication system
  • However secure communications are, the moment they’re read by someone they become vulnerable to their intentions – which may well be at odds with the author’s intentions.
  • The minute the author presses the Return Button, or clicks ‘send’, they immediately lose control of where that data may end up and how it may be used.

You don’t need to be an ambassador to fall victim to a communications leak. The risks of communicating in the digital era threatens all organisations – so,  before circulating confidential, classified or even sensitive information, employees should ask themselves the following questions:

  • How sensitive is the information I’m about to send?
  • Does it need to be sent at all?
  • Is it written in a way that will be understood and not cause offence?
  • Is this the right means in which to send such information?
  • Who will have access to this information and what can be done to restrict its wider distribution?
  • What might be the consequences of this information being more widely circulated?
  • What can be done to ensure that any leak is traceable?

by Associate Director – Harry Fullerton 

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