I’m a big history buff, notably military history. I have read countless accounts of how battles were lost because someone spilled the beans or secret information was lost. For the D-Day invasion of Normandy, France the Allies even arranged for the plans to fall into German hands—of course those fake plans said the invasion was going to take place somewhere completely different.
I bring this up because in the past week while traveling I found out that Company A was trying to keep a client happy after blowing a big deal. Turns out that Company A made some big mistakes and at least one fairly high-level executive said, “Yeah we’re in the wrong, but we have to cover our ass.”
I didn’t learn the name of the company or client, but if I had paid slightly more attention I could have found out. This wasn’t any major snooping on my part as an investigative journalist either. This I learned while sitting on a plane waiting to take off. During the flight the executive typed away a memo, which a subtle glance revealed was “confidential.” Loose lips might not sink ships today, but who knows what information gets out during a simple conversation!
During an earlier flight I heard another conversation from a gentleman two rows in front of me who was describing a potential merger. The kicker of that conversation was, “Make sure everyone involved signs NDAs. I don’t want this getting out too early!”
How is it that people would causally talk on a crowded plane and not worry? Part of me often wonders if some of these conversations aren’t exaggerated to make the talker look like a big shot. But if that’s the case the people talking don’t look like movers and shakers as much as employees badly in need of getting the pink slip. And that pink slip should be given even if they are just playing around with the conversations because they could hurt their businesses anyway!
Likewise I find it amazing that people will go through vast efforts to protect their sensitive data in their office with encryption and firewalls but will send highly confidential information via a laptop at a coffee place, or worse from a Blackberry! Maybe I’m paranoid, and in truth I thought about this because I was traveling for my great uncle’s funeral this week.
He was of the World War II generation where you’d actually see those posters that said such things as “loose lips sink ships,” or worse show a troop train burning with the words, “someone talked.” And while he was also an elderly man that was convinced ATMs couldn’t be 100% secure either, in his defense he did live through a time when casual conversation could result in deaths. So maybe a bit of paranoia is a good thing.
The point is that maybe it is a good idea to use some common sense when discussing highly sensitive information. While I’m certainly one to write an article while traveling, I’m typically too paranoid even to send invoices to my clients from any computers other than those personal PCs I know are secure (Of course I’m the same sort of individual who won’t think twice about e-mailing my credit card information to a European antique’s dealer either, but in this case the worst thing that will happen is some credit card fraud!). But I would never draft a memo on a plane that is truly “confidential” if I thought the person next to me could take a peak.