13 April 2009

Of Bruce's Law and Derek's Corollary

Much will be written about the events of the last few days concerning the leaked Labour emails, and the plans to create a scurrilous blog. The focus will rightly be on the rise of blogs as a powerful force within the world of journalism, fully capable of bringing down politicians. But here I'd like to examine an aspect that I suspect will receive far less attention.

At the centre of the storm are the emails: what they say, who sent them and who received them. One suggestion was that they were stolen from a cracked account, but that version seems increasingly discounted in favour of the idea that someone who disapproved of the emails' contents simply leaked them. What's interesting for me is how easy this has become.

Once upon a time – say, ten years ago – you would have needed to break into an office somewhere to steal a document in order to leak it. Now, though, the almost universal use of computers means that all this stuff is handily stored in digital form. As a result, sending it to other people is as simple as writing their name (or just the first few letters of their name, given the intelligence built into email clients these days.) This means that multiple copies probably exist in different physical locations.

Moreover, making a further copy leaves *no* trace whatsoever; indeed, the whole of the Internet is based on copies, so creating them is nothing special. Trying to stop copies being made of a digital document, once sent out, is an exercise in futility, because that implies being in control of multiple pre-existing copies at multiple locations – possibly widely separated.

Bruce Schneier has memorably written "trying to make digital files uncopyable is like trying to make water not wet." I'd like to call this Bruce's Law. What has happened recently to the Labour emails is an inevitable consequence of Bruce's Law – the fact that digital documents, once circulated, can and will be copied. Tender and thoughtful alike, perhaps we should dub this fact as Derek's Corollary, in honour of one of the people who has done so much to bring its effects to our attention.

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