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The Wiki Man

The secret of a perfect crime: be boring

Technology makes it dangerously easy for people to claim they don’t know what’s going on

3 December 2016

9:00 AM

3 December 2016

9:00 AM

Do any of us honestly have any idea how serious the Hillary Clinton email scandal was? I haven’t got a clue. Her actions could have been a neglectful oversight or a heinous criminal act. We don’t know.

Clinton was an avid BlackBerry user and, on becoming secretary of state, claimed she didn’t know how to handle email on the desktop computer the government provided. When the National Security Agency was unable to find a secure way of sending classified information via her BlackBerry, Hillary simply continued using it, along with the old email address and server she had used while out of office. She never had an @state.gov email address: you emailed hdr22@clinton-email.com.

My inclination is to give Hillary the benefit of the doubt — and put her actions down to technological cluelessness. Most people pay little or no attention to IT except when it’s not working, and Hillary may barely have known there was a server in her basement. But it still seems suspicious that nobody in the administration raised the issue of her email address. I mean you’d think it odd if you were told to contact the Prime Minister via Number10-Tessa@gmail.com.


But the really interesting thing about this story, as with many modern scandals, is that technology makes it dangerously easy for people to claim they don’t know what’s going on. Once a story involves a sufficient level of technical complexity, it is often too boring or complex to become a proper scandal and our usual instinct for moral outrage switches off. Libor does not arouse the same desire for vengeance we feel when someone breaks into our car. We really only know these things are scandals when the press occasionally makes a big deal of one of them.

Charles Foster Kane: Why hasn’t the Inquirer a three-column headline?
Herbert Carter: The news wasn’t big enough.
Charles Foster Kane: Mr Carter, if the headline is big enough, it makes the news big enough.

But often the press finds such things too boring to cover. You know of the Volkswagen emissions scandal because it made headlines. What you may not know is that in the late 1990s, before the cheat device was a twinkle in a German engineer’s eye, many US manufacturers of diesel engines employed a similar cheat: the emissions control software on 1.3 million trucks turned itself off after 50 miles driving on a freeway. Yet this received scant coverage. I learned of it only when I started reading about emissions control software in unhealthy detail. This past silence may explain why people at Volkswagen thought they would get away with it — they thought the crime was simply too nerdy to become major news.

If I were advising aspiring young criminals, I would advise them to get into a really boring field of crime, ideally creating financial instruments so tediously complex that most people would fall asleep after two minutes hearing about them. Then make sure you do nothing at all in your private life which makes you remotely interesting; do not, for instance, buy an outrageously large yacht. If you do, the press has material for a story.

As the old joke goes, there are two ways of becoming a top judge. One way is to work hard at university, attend one of the Inns of Court, join a leading set of chambers and work hard for 30 years. Then you may be a judge, and ten to 15 years after that perhaps you may even be a top judge.

The other solution is to become a minor local magistrate and be caught having sex with a goat. Every tabloid newspaper the following day will then have a banner on its front page: ‘Top Judge in Goat Sex Horror.’

Rory Sutherland is vice-chairman of Ogilvy Group UK.


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