During World War 2, there were quite a few posters like the ones reproduced here. As you can see, some had quite grizzly reminders of the consequence of careless talk.
Have things changed? Apparently not. A few years ago a banner across the top of the www.military.com website proclaimed:
LOOSE LIPS STILL SINK SHIPS
In today’s world of broadband internet, cell phones, and e-mail, your role in our military’s operational security is more important than ever.
Regrettably, the website contains no instruction on how to go about using your lips to sink ships, which is a pity because it sounds like one hell of a party trick.
(Off on a tangent: If it’s true that loose lips sink ships, then surely the lip-plated Surma women of Ethiopia would feature prominently in maritime records. But no, I can’t find any evidence that these women with extraordinarily extended lips have sunk a single merchantman or warship. Weird.)
In response to a recent survey, ten percent of UK law firms admitted that they had suffered a breach of security in the previous twelve months. Six percent lost clients as a result of these breaches. You have to figure similar studies in other business sectors would show similar results. What would be interesting, for me at least, is to study the results if this were an annual survey. Would we see the same results year on year? Would we see that the security breaches had occurred to a different ten percent of UK law firms? Or would we see last year’s names on this new survey. And on the next. And the next. Are there businesses that are habitually insecure? Back to the surveyors for the answer to that one.
There are all sorts of studies that suggest it’s cheaper to hold on to existing clients than win new ones to replace those lost. The lesson here seems to be that it’s not a good idea to do stuff that jeopardises your relationship with your clients. Stuff like sharing information.
Can that be right?
Surely, talking about your clients is good!
If you can’t tell a prospective client how an existing client’s business has quadrupled since she’s been with you, then how the hell are you supposed to impress the pants off this new guy?
If you can’t illustrate your speech to an industry group with real examples of your professional brilliance, then now can they be expected to worship you?
If you can’t announce the launch of something really big before it gets launched, then where’s the news value?
If you can’t give a trade journalist the document with the actual figures, then what’s to stop him or her from getting them wrong?
You know how the system works. Your client knows how the system works. I bet even amoeba know how the system works. But just to recap: Your client shares a document with you. He tells you it contains highly sensitive information. Some clients, especially those that are new, might ask you to sign a confidentiality agreement. But he and you know that what’s written on a confidentiality agreement isn’t what’s meant by a confidentiality agreement. Yes, the client asks you not to share this information with anyone. But you both understand that what he’s really saying is “share it, but just don’t say who it is”.
(Off on a tangent: Where did the phrases ‘sensitive information’ come from? Unless psychoanalysts can prove otherwise, I refuse to accept that information can be sensitive. Ever seen data cry at a wedding? Has it ever given you a hug when you needed one?)
I’ll tell you a secret
Who doesn’t like a bit of role playing? So here we go. Imagine you own a major PR company (which of course isn’t role playing if you happen to own a major PR company). Okay, you’re at a cocktail party. You’re unbelievably excited about a secret new product launch you’re working on for a new client. You’re dying to let people know – without betraying the promise of confidentiality you made to your client.
So how do you go about it? Well it could go something like this:
You might be chatting to an old buddy. You might mention that you have just returned from a trip to the Netherlands. No harm in that. You have a bit of conversation about Edam, Heineken and Eindhoven. All innocent stuff. You move on.
Later in the night, you meet an ex-employee. She asks how business is going?
Great. We’ve just picked up this sensational piece of new business. Electronics. Can’t say whom. But when this technology launches next year, it will make TVs obsolete.
You then go on to explain this breakthrough. As best you can. After all, some of that techno mumbo jumbo was a bit complex. Not to mention brain-numbingly dull. Never mind. You explain it sufficiently to impress. She’s amazed that someone hasn’t thought of this before, just as you were amazed when you first heard it. No harm in any of this. You have told her about the new product without mentioning your client by name. You move on.
Later that night, your old buddy and your ex-employee are standing chatting to a guy called Tom. You pass them on your way back from the little boy’s room and say hi again as you head for the bar.
You didn’t know that your buddy and your ex-employee knew each other. Maybe they just met tonight. Prompted by your passing, your buddy mentions to that other guy Tom that you’ve just returned from Holland. Then your ex-employee mentions that you’re working on the launch of an amazing new satellite-linked hard-drive home entertainment system that will deliver any film, any TV show, any sporting event from anywhere in the world into your living room in real time.
As luck would have it, Tom’s major client is a huge Chinese electronics company that prides itself on copying foreign technology – then building it better and selling it cheaper.
Now Tom starts thinking. “I wonder if that guy’s trip to the Netherlands and this new client are related? Sounds like Philips to me.”
Next day, Tom’s on the blower to his client.
You can guess the rest.
Suddenly the whole world knows
Just like Jacques Tati’s character, Monsieur Hulot, you probably have no idea of your role in the chaos that follows in your wake. You’re as shocked as your client when it emerges that a Chinese electronics company seems to have been working on exactly the same technology as your client – and has actually beaten him to market by a couple of months.
Maybe your client will never connect the dots. Chances are you won’t connect them yourself.
He is shocked that his breakthrough has broken before he had a chance to break it himself. He suspects industrial espionage. He wonders which of his own staff might have sold his secrets. He tells you of his bitter disappointment that one of his trusted underlings has apparently betrayed him. Sensing an opportunity to bond, you assure him that if you were him, you’d string the culprit up by the balls.
Of course, sensitive information gets spread in lots of different ways. Electronics seems to be a popular way to shoot yourself in the foot nowadays. (I’ll give you a moment to grapple with that confounding visual metaphor.)
How many documents have been attached to emails that were sent to the wrong recipients? Just one innocent twitch of the index finger and someone you never intended is reading something you never intended and for the life of you, you can’t work out why nobody has ever worked out how to retrieve emails sent by mistake – like now.
You can’t retrieve the email, so you do the next best thing. You hastily send an email advising that you’d like to withdraw the email accidentally dispatched. Then fearing that this mightn’t be enough, you call the accidental recipient and in your humblest and most grovelling voice you explain that you sent an email by mistake and ask them not to open it, not to read it, but to drag it immediately into the trash bin – which the recipient agrees to do.
At least that’s what the recipient says she will do.
Be honest, if someone called you in similar circumstances, explained their mistake and begged you to trash the email, wouldn’t you have just the slightest bit of curiosity? Of course you would! You rush to get off the phone. You can’t wait to open the email and see just what’s so sensitive.
Same thing with mobile phones. You’re writing a pithy text message to your 2nd-in-Command on the subject of how much money you can squeeze from a soft-touch client for next year’s budget. You’re just about finished your message when you get a call – from the client you were writing about. In the fluster created when you stopped messaging to take the call, you end the call and send the text to the number that just called – your client – instead of your 2-i-C.
“Shit. Shit, shit, shit, shit.” And then some.