Shredding no longer a simple, innocent action

Shredding Enron documents virtually destroyed Arthur Anderson, a once world-class consultancy. The latest news about shredding of committee minutes about Forex at the Bank of England may not be in the same league. Such activity though, could undermine the integrity and reputation of the bank.arthur anderson

This danger explains why the bank’s leaders appear to be taking the issue so seriously.

Shredding once seemed such a simple and innocent activity, no longer. We cannot assume any shredding of written material, or its equivalent: destruction of electronic data, to be entirely innocent,

What makes the situation more complicated is the drastic drop in the costs of data storage. Since these are now almost zero, retaining electronic and scanned records indefinitely is now entirely feasible.

For example, it once cost a whopping $1 million to store a GB of data in 1980. By 2010 this had fallen to the almost invisible $0.01 per

Indeed, concern about the recent US surveillance scandal partly arose over how much data was being illegally retained on the off-chance it could be mined. The technical answer to “How much can we keep?” appears to be: “no limits.”

Shredding applies to two main sources of data: paper documents and electronic information. Since retaining the latter costs almost nothing, destroying such material becomes automatically suspicious. For example, News Corp directors apparently ordered the deletion of 500 GB of email archive data dating back to 2005.

Prosecutions in the News of the World phone hacking case will probably never see all relevant and potentially incriminating missing material.  One reporter has even suggested Rupert Murdoch’s reason for shutting down the paper was to allow him to get rid of the electronic evidence.[1]

Almost by default, shredding of electronic data is morphing into an assumed unethical practice. To shred now is to run the risk of being seen as doing something shady.

Take for example Andrew Tinney, chief operating officer of the Barclays US high-end investment division, then known as Barclays Wealth. He made about $8 million a year helping to run a division with nearly $300 billion under management. He commissioned an outside report of the workplace culture by the consultancy Genesis Ventures.

Two Genesis investigators interviewed over 50 U.S. employees and discovered a business out of control. Horrified by what he read about the outfit he was supposed to be managing; Tinney fed what he thought was the only copy into a shredder and, apparently “denied all knowledge of it ever having existed.”

But a whistleblower caused Barclays to hire a law firm to investigate whether there was a Genesis report. When eventually the law firm found the document Tinney admitted he had shredded his copy. Barclays put him on indefinite leave and shortly afterwards he resigned. [2]

Despite the so-called paperless office paper shredding keeps growing. It runs in parallel with other factors such as identity theft, changes in record keeping legislation, the stiffening of penalties for those found guilty of not keeping private information private, electronic records, and the desire and legal requirements to recycle.


What then are the rules for ethical shredding? There is no universal set of standards, each firm must develop its own policy. The main approach must be to separate all documents into three categories

1)     Originals you must keep for legal reasons

2)     Paper you want for some reason but are not legally required to retain

3)     Stuff no one can possibly find a reason to ever to view again

This last group would be rubbish such as flyers about last year’s office Christmas party and the unwelcomed blank pages that mysteriously appear when printing emails.

Finally, for those bent on shredding beware! Someone may be able to reconstruct your unwanted material and your secrets will out. For example, when the Berlin Wall came down the East German security services tried to destroy all their records. To this day these fill around 16,000 garbage bags stored in the basement of the former headquarters in Berlin, their secrets apparently lost in a mountain of millions of tiny shreds of paper.

Stasi records
Stasi records await reconstruction

But some clever scientist has invented the e-Puzzler. Using the world’s most sophisticated pattern-recognition technology, the intention is to put the shredded Stasi files back together, piecing together a part of the past long considered lost forever. [3]

The Bank of E minutes of the Forex meetings may have been shredded, but who knows, perhaps they lie in a forgotten basement filled with black bin bags? More work for the bin bags










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