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The Curse of Auto-Fill: G20 leaders’ details leaked by a sloppy e-mailer

World Leaders Gather For G20 Summit In BrisbaneWorld Leaders Gather For G20 Summit In Brisbane
And remember not to press "Reply All" on the sanctions-related traffic...Photograph by Glenn Hunt — Getty Images

The personal details of the leaders of some of the world’s most important countries were leaked by one of the most common mistakes known to Office Man, according a report out Monday.

The Guardian reported that an Australian government employee had accidentally leaked the personal details, including the passport details and visa status, of the leaders who attended the G-20 summit in Brisbane, Australia, at the end of last year by sending an e-mail to completely the wrong person, thanks to the vagaries of Microsoft’s auto-fill software tool.

The employee “failed to check that the auto-fill function in Microsoft Outlook had entered the correct person’s details in the e-mail ‘To’ field,” the employee’s boss wrote in one of those painfully embarrassing explanatory e-mails to his superior. “This led to the e-mail being sent to the wrong person.”

The e-mail had been intended for a government colleague but instead went to the organizers of the Asian Cup soccer tournament. The e-mail in question went to a single address and, according to the report, was deleted within minutes of being received.

That, however, may have tempted the people involved into a significant breach of etiquette (if there is such a thing for clumsy e-mailing – because there certainly isn’t any internationally consistent legislation). The author of the report recommended not telling the leaders involved–who include Presidents Barack Obama, Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin, as well as Germany’s Angela Merkel and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi–that their details had been released, seeing that the breach of confidentiality didn’t seem serious enough.

“Given that the risks of the breach are considered very low and the actions that have been taken to limit the further distribution of the email, I do not consider it necessary to notify the clients of the breach,” she wrote. It isn’t clear whether her advice was followed.

Either way, the breach comes at an embarrassing time for the government of Prime Minister Tony Abbott. Only last week, parliament passed a new law forcing telecoms companies and internet service providers to retain customer data for two years, riding roughshod over privacy-related complaints.

The government will be hoping the private companies do a better job of protecting such data.

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