How the Sony hack may save Staples

December 18, 2014, 8:35 PM UTC
APTOPIX Sony Hack Theaters
A poster for the movie "The Interview" is carried away by a worker after being pulled from a display case at a Carmike Cinemas movie theater, Wednesday, Dec. 17, 2014, in Atlanta. Georgia-based Carmike Cinemas has decided to cancel its planned showings of "The Interview" in the wake of threats against theatergoers by the Sony hackers. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
Photograph by David Goldman — AP

In the wake of Sony’s hack by humorless North Korean shut-ins (allegedly), everyone seems to be talking about how there is no such thing as legitimate security when it comes to digital communications. It’s something we all know intellectually, but fail to apply to our daily lives. Kind of like we know eating an entire block of cheddar cheese in one day will shorten our lifespan, but we eat it anyway (just me? okay, moving on).

The solution, we’re told, is continued creation of what Farhad Manjoo has termed the “erasable Internet.” Services like Confide and Snapchat, which immediately destroy digital messages after they have been read. As he writes:

A range of start-ups across the world, including Snapchat itself, are working to create communications systems that are not based on saving as a default. Someday, perhaps someday soon, it may be possible to quickly and easily send messages that you can be fairly confident are secure.

It sounds totally sensible, except that it presumes we all either: (a) Have eidetic memories, or (b) Have such frivolous digital discourse that we don’t care about saving them for future reference. The former we know to be untrue, and the latter would seem to be disproven by the massive popularity of Gmail as an email client — in part because of its massive storage and simple search capabilities. And this doesn’t even address regulatory requirements in many industries that require all communications — even phone calls — to be recorded and saved for a lengthy period of time.

So if we’re really going to move to an erasable Internet, it would seem that we also may need an offline storage technology. May I suggest something called paper.

For those of you too young to remember, paper (pronounced pā-pər) is the thing words were put on before electronic screens. Typically made of wood, but surprisingly light and flexible.

Paper also was the backbone of entire industries, including office supply chains like Staples (SPLS) and Office Depot (ODP) , which are receiving activist investor pressure to merge due to sliding sales. Or, more specifically, paper, printers, toner and those high-priced printer cartridges. It was an evergreen business until people suddenly went electronic, for everything from bills or invitations to memos.

But what if we can no longer rely on digital depositories for our historic communications? After all, the only way to hack paper messages is to physically break into a building and steal ’em.

So while this Sony situation has most of corporate America worried about their security, at least a couple of companies might want to work on refreshing their inventories. And maybe putting off that merger for a little while…

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