Mark Foley and the Persistence of Digital Communications

October 4th, 2006

Former Congressman Foley has now learned what so many politicians and corporate executives have found before — emails and IMs live forever. A whispered conversation can be forgotten and a piece of paper burned, but digital communications are almost always stored somewhere, either on the sender’s or recipient’s computer or on a server in between.

I’ve often been asked by colleagues and clients to create a “secure” website, one accessible only to those with the right username and password. I’ve always replied that password-protecting a site is easy, but keeping the contents private is not — passwords can be forwarded and so can any downloaded document. My rule of thumb: never put anything online that you wouldn’t mind seeing written up on the front page of the New York Times.

Ironically, the data you need to keep can be dangerously fragile, as anyone who’s had an un-backed-up hard drive crash knows. Digital media deteriorate or become obsolete, and the one Photoshop file you desperately need is buried somewhere in a stack of unlabeled cds. But, the universe being what it is, that incriminating email will almost always find some way to come back to life.

cpd

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