(Photo: Fox Business Videos)
This story about Hillary Clinton spending four years as Secretary of State doing the people’s business on a personal email account is so weird that I’m not sure where to start.
But I have to try.
At one level, the story should strike a chord with people who’ve been frustrated by their own company’s email offerings and decided to stick with their personal email address instead.
“I opted for convenience to use my personal email account,” Clinton said during a press conference in New York on Tuesday. “I thought it would be easier to carry just one device for my work and for my personal emails instead of two.”
Back in 2009, the work device almost certainly would have been a BlackBerry, not an iPhone. I get it. And yet…
Nobody thought that was weird?
Clinton isn’t the first politician to use a nongovernmental email account for official business. She’s not even the first secretary of state to do so: Colin Powell told ABC’s George Stephanopoulos on Sunday that he’d done the same thing during George W. Bush’s administration.
But Clinton didn’t just have her own email address (the alphanumerically obscure email@example.com), she also had her own private server in the home she shared with former President Bill Clinton in upstate New York.
No matter how many IT types you have around the house, that’s doing things the hard way.
(This calls for a strident don’t-try-this-at-home warning: Almost all residential Internet providers prohibit the running of servers from home. And if you tell friends in IT that you’re doing it anyway, they’ll ask if you’re feeling all right.)
The State Department apparently never set up an address for Clinton. This raises the haunting possibility that various peace proposals emailed to firstname.lastname@example.org bounced and were never re-sent.
What about security?
The most serious critique of Clinton’s DIY email system goes after its security. At Tuesday’s press conference, Clinton said that server was protected by Secret Service agents — which is entirely beside the point.
Movie plots aside, servers don’t get hacked by ninjas sneaking into data centers. Why bother when you can do the same thing from a coffee shop on the other side of the world by exploiting vulnerabilities in server software and in the humans charged with maintaining it?
Government IT is eminently fallible — in November 2014, the State Department shut down its whole email system after learning that hackers might have been poking around in it. And at the time, email in general had yet to benefit from the widespread, post-Snowden movement to secure messages in transit with “TLS” encryption.
All else being equal, though, as Wired’s Andy Greenberg wrote last week, the federal government’s computer Internet systems are somewhat tougher to crack than most privately operated domains.
The government’s not supposed to operate in the dark
Government employees don’t use .gov email addresses just because they look official: Public records laws generally require this correspondence to be preserved for later inspection, and when government agencies own the servers, it’s easier for them to make sure that happens.
As my friend Alex Howard wrote Tuesday at TechPresident: “Without an independent, trustworthy third party to audit the entire email archives, like an inspector general, the public is being asked to simply trust her and her staff that no public records ended up dragged to the trash bin of history.”
At Tuesday’s press conference, Clinton said the very act of emailing other State Department employees at their state.gov addresses ensured that their correspondence was preserved. But she’d deleted the purely personal messages … and we’ll have to hope that nothing State Department-related got trashed by mistake.
(I should note that my wife is a local government employee. I don’t email her at her work address because I don’t want my correspondence saved for posterity by the government. To my mind, Gmail does archiving well enough already.)
When other politicians do this, it’s to cover up crimes
All of this looks especially bad when you consider the long and sleazy history of politicians moving their correspondence away from government channels so they can break other rules.
In 2012, for example, we learned that key staffers of a Republican county executive in Wisconsin had set up their own 3G wireless router in their offices. (One hopes they didn’t have to download too many videos over that slow connection.)
They used that secret system for some official chores, but also to work on their boss’s political campaigns and even post sock-puppet comments on news stories defending him, while on the public’s dime.
The guy who benefited from that work was one Scott Walker, who today serves as Wisconsin’s governor. And has become one of the louder critics of Clinton’s choice of email server. Because … politics!
Unless and until we learn Clinton was using this home-cooked email system to, say, arrange a trade of arms for hostages or have an affair with an employee, I doubt it’s something we’ll be talking about next year. But it should at least live on as a warning to others: Sometimes, you really should listen to the IT department.