A Very Public Life

When it was clear the North Vietnamese forces were about to take Saigon in April 1975, US Marines were ordered to start shredding documents in the American embassy.

Diplomats whose guts churned when WikiLeaks began posting 250,000 cables online must long for the days when a memo could be destroyed by passing it into a machine which would chop it up.

Just as it took weeks to find many of the most glaring outrages lurking among the receipts of MPs during the Westminster expenses scandal, the gravest revelations contained in the embassy cables may take some time to crawl to the surface.

But what is immediately clear is how much of the classified communications consists of, well, chatter.

The musings of diplomats about the instability of public figures and geopolitical perils are often about as revelatory as a Twitter message.

The political establishment has not been shaken by the revelation that Arab states are worried about Iran. Rather, it’s the violation of privacy which has triggered the cries of treason.

And while anyone with an interest in the world beyond this country’s borders will enjoy having a lunchtime snoop through the WikiLeaks archives, a shiver might run down the spine of all of us who dabble on a social network.

Diplomats work in a world where documents are classified with words like “secret” and there are stark, grave penalties for people who violate the code of discretion.

However, the communications of the globe’s greatest military power have been freely distributed with the click of a button.

If secret messages can be posted online by some internet adventurers, what chance is there that the photographs and attempts at witty irony that so many of us have posted for friends online will not end up broadcast to everyone?

Millions of us now use e-mail systems where the messages are stored on a distant server in a country of which we know nothing, and yet we tell ourselves that our secrets are safe.

It would be a scandal of the century if billions of messages were duplicated and our delusions of privacy where shattered. In an age of so-called cyber-warfare, what better way to humiliate a nation than to reveal everything we thought was safely behind digital lock and key?

Corporate gatekeepers will assure us that no such breach of security would be possible because steps have been taken. But when Hillary Clinton’s memos can be read on a computer screen in Abergwyngregyn, the day we wave goodbye to the sweet idea of a private life may not be far away.

A Saturday column