Meeting a friend for coffee, we began the usual, socially acceptable ritual of small-talk. I asked him how his day went, and was work alright? To my surprise, the friend in question began to colour, and stammered that no, in fact, he'd been marched into the manager's office for a heavy round of chastisement.
The terrible deed in question? No, he wasn't hogging the photocopier or stealing stationary, nor did he make inappropriate remarks or overtures to a colleague. Instead, it was a number of emails he'd sent from his work outbox, aimed at his fiance, rather than the saucer-wide eyes of his boss.
What I pointedly remember about this conversation was the fact that the friend, another member of the Generation Y, was most annoyed at the fact the company had been "prying" into his emails -- rather than the discovery of the content itself.
On a larger scale, modern scandals in business and politics are littered with the same stories -- but generally with more severe consequences. As Tech2 reported, ousted CEO Bob Diamond of Barclays bank said he felt "physically ill" reading past emails of his traders who were conniving to manipulate interested rates in the United Kingdom. These saved messages, speaking of champagne and glory through the illegal activity, came back to haunt the veteran banker.
Whether it is an individual, public figure or corporation, the same mistake seems to be made time and time again. Anything electronic, whether typed in confidence or hidden behind privacy settings, can rear its ugly head hours, days or years later.
The Barclays scandal is one example. However, wire-tapping, disastrous Tweets, screenshot conversations and inappropriate Facebook photos or YouTube videos all litter the public domain -- and with a single click or phone call, a career can crumble to dust.
It seems that the more reliant we become on the convenience of technology, the less privacy we give ourselves. Emails, social networking, texts or phone calls -- all of this relies on a central communication structure. What is considered acceptable "prying" or surveillance changes with the political environment, but the data available remains solid. John Bassett, a former senior official at British signals intelligence agency GCHQ told Tech2:
"E-mail, Twitter, texting and the rest all intuitively feel like short fuse ephemeral communications - a quick word in passing, if you will. Yet as soon as we push the send button, these communications take on an enduring digital permanence that means that in effect they never quite go away."
Wikileaks is a great example of how confidential data, lifted, stolen, copied or dredged up from a server, can be released into the public domain. However, it is not just criminal activity that can result in disastrous consequences; firms may be legally obliged to hand over electronic data or individual identities -- and perhaps it is that single, self-inflicted, idiotic mistake of posting a public Facebook status about your boss that sees you handed your P45.
Staying off the grid is difficult, when modern-day lifestyles are crammed with social networks, emails, smartphones and personal computers. In the end, telephone calls can be tapped, emails logged, Skype communication may be recorded by the recipient, and social networking photos and messages -- whether deleted or not -- screensaved, exchanged and stored on servers.
Businesses are beginning to realize this, but perhaps the next generation hasn't quite caught up yet. Once you enter the workplace -- and in some cases, even before you enter university -- the digital footprint you leave is often checked.
Public or not, anything you type or say may eventually find the light of day.
How do we avoid this? Avoid the data trail. Perhaps, on occasion, consider meeting someone face-to-face, or save private matters for a coffee shop instead of Skype. Malicious, harmful, dubious or illegal communication exchanged digitally may seem safe enough in your email inbox, but it takes little more than a forward on the exchange to wreak havoc.
The simple rule that needs to be understood by the Generation Y, and those that follow, is that digital communication is not transient. It doesn't degrade, it isn't necessarily forgotten, and it is intrinsically vulnerable. If you've something to say that you would prefer to remain unrecorded, consider seriously before writing it down.
It may not be as convenient as using your iPhone to text, but it may save you embarrassment in the long run.
Image credit: CNET