The lesson of VW: how digital files can protect companies from embarrassing situations

There are moments when you ask yourself: how is that possible? For example, we might ask ourselves: how is it possible that a highly confidential file that plays a vital role in one of the biggest corporate scandals of the post-WWII era could have been taken into a meeting as a reference file, then forgotten there?

Just between us: the classic printed reference file does have its advantages; there’s no question about that. Its thickness and heft might cause the inexperienced to impugn a certain metaphorical weight to its contents. A reference file is certainly also read as a signifier of power when stamped: “strictly confidential,” as this kind of stamp broadcasts the importance of the individual carrying it. Last but not least, dropping one on the table with emphasis does make a certain impression. The decibel level suggests a huge workload, as a swirl of dust evokes combing searches through even the remotest of archives.

 

Sensitive data? Soon to be public knowledge in a reference file

The only thing is: none of this has much to do with reality in today’s digital age. Not just because there are plenty of other ways to display power and importance than a file folder, but also because a printed reference file outside of a locked cabinet is probably the most unsafe type of storage imaginable for sensitive content.

 

The State Chancellery leads with a poor example…

The Lower Saxon State Chancellery has provided one especially good example of this: one Friday in fall of 2015, a reference file on the VW emissions scandal was spotted sitting in a meeting room. Party staffers later recalled it as an ownerless folder labelled VW. As the SPIEGEL reported, the file then circulated through the state parliament before popping up again long after it had already been reported as stolen to the public prosecutor’s office. According to the SPIEGEL, it contained emails from the spokeswoman for the prime minister, as well as hand-written notes and working papers identified as strictly confidential.

 

Time to rethink

Experience is a hard teacher, or so goes the truism. Let’s hope the expression holds true in this case in particular. With a digital file, of course, it might have been possible to skip the excitement altogether.