Lessons to be learned from the Great Email Crash of ’12

16Jun12

Every email I received between 2004 and yesterday has been turned to rubbish. Literally. Click on any one of them and the text is now identical – an extremely boring press release from the Bristol Liberal Democrats about a campaign for new traffic lights near Southmead Hospital. I am not making this up. Every last single email that anyone ever sent to my pop3 account since April 2004 is now an identical copy of one of the dullest communications I have ever received.

This is as surreal as it’s annoying.

How did this happen? Well, I got home from the pub last night, decided to check the emails, something weird happened, Windows Live Mail crashed and when I started it again, there were no mails there at all. I am moderately familiar with the innards of Windows and this morning set about recovering the lost mails. This I did successfully. Apart from the big file of old received mails. They’re all there with the right date, subject and sender headers, but every single one of them is now this press release about traffic lights.

I can only conclude that at some point in my half-cut state last night I accidentally clicked on the TURN ALL MY OLD EMAILS TO TEDIOUS GARBAGE button.

There was a time when historians fretted about electronic communication. Back in the old days, the argument went, politicians, civil servants and public figures wrote everything down. They communicated in letters, memos and reports. Insights into decisions could be gleaned from Blue Books and a wealth of filed papers in archives.

But what happens when they communicate electronically? By email, SMS, Skype and all the other things which are to follow? Most of this will be lost, the argument went, and we’ll never be able to gain the insights into the thinking of decision-makers that we used to back when it was all on paper.

This fear, it turns out, is utterly groundless. One of the less commented consequences of the Leveson Inquiry is the way in which it’s been able to commandeer a wealth of electronic data, from the conspiratorial emails between the underlings of Murdoch and Jeremy Hunt, to the toe-curling texts between David Cameron and Rebekah Brooks.

This stuff, I submit m’lud, brings us way closer to actually eavesdropping on the conversations of the great ‘n’ good than anything from the paper era. How about, for instance, if it had been possible to subpoena the texts of say, Lloyd George’s fixer Maundy Gregory? (“Have just sold 16 more peerages and forged Roger Casement’s diary. He’s so gay LOL.”)

Should I feel so inclined I will be able to forensically recover most (but not all) of my old emails using various back-ups and old PCs. And that’s just me, a private individual whose communications are of no interest to anyone. We all leave a massive trail behind us every time we send a text or email, and there are people out there who can recover them at will.

The British state, with benign or sinister intent, can and does eavesdrop on innocent citizens (or rather innocent subjects) and is seeking powers to do it even more. But we are also living in an era of unprecedented political transparency. Shining light on the relationships between our corporate masters and their political lackeys is going to have consequences. Whether good or bad remains to be seen, but for the time being we are leaving a splendid legacy for historians of the future. A legacy that historians of even the quite recent past can only dream about.

We’ll talk about this more at our next country supper* LOL.

* Country supper – informal Oxfordshire social event where Rupert Murdoch is handed the Country on a plate.

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