What does confidentiality of mail have to do with innovation?

What does confidentiality of mail have to do with innovation?

Whether we are talking about government or business environments, it is always a good idea to treat the privacy of citizens, employees, partners and customers with the utmost care. Transparency is not to be confused with camera surveillance or email monitoring. Being open about your operations is not the same thing as wanting to know everything that goes on around you.

Innovation and experiment require a safe space, allowing for free expression and the open exchange of ideas, without the feeling of ‘being observed’. This is especially true when challenging questions are to be asked, when new ideas are being put to the test and the existence of support is still unsure.

Openness and privacy may seem contradictory concepts, but in fact, there can only be open debate in seclusion, if the exchange of ideas takes place in private.

A helpful illustration of this dynamic can be found in the controversy over censorship versus confidentiality of mail in the early 19th century. After Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo, in 1815, liberal ideas were the last thing on the agendas of conservative European rulers – monarchs and the elite nobility. With censorship as the obvious choice, opening of letters by government censors quickly became common practice. When free spirits, liberals and scientists are unable to exchange their newly-found insights and unfinished theories in the seclusion of secrecy, their ambitions to reform are crippled. Thus, violating the confidentiality of mail was the conservative remedy against progressive openness and creativity.

In the public arena, it is not an easy thing to switch sides, to endorse new ways of thinking. It is no coincidence that totalitarian, repressive regimes not only spell the end of openness, but of change and creativity as well.

Not surprisingly then, privacy as a fundamental right and protection of the confidentiality of mail were introduced into the Dutch constitution in short succession, and promotion of the confidentiality of mail in particular, greatly benefitted from the liberal reforms initiated by Thorbecke in 1848. Of course, governments did not overlook implementing an escape route, providing for the option to read mail in spite of all confidentiality regulations when it serves purposes of crime investigation or protection of national security – but the right to do so is significantly limited by requiring court authorisation.

Any company considering to include a fine-print provision in its IT manual to the effect that management reserves the right to look and read over people’s shoulders, would be well advised to also consider the potential effects of such arrangements on its creativity and productivity. Not to mention the small matter of legality. Best course of action? Leave those employee emails alone.

Mark van Hattem, Ph.D., CTPP


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