Whoever Wins the White House, This Year’s Big Loser Is Email

The exposure of the Clinton campaign’s internal emails shows that a ubiquitous, and vulnerable, communication tool is ready for the scrap heap.

By Anna Chapman Published on October 18, 2016.

Every four years, pundits race to anoint this or that newfangled tech trend as the next disruptive force to forever alter the mechanics of American democracy. The 2016 campaign has already been called the Snapchat election, the Periscope election, the Meerkat election, the Twitter election, the Facebook election and the meme election. (If there were a vomit emoji, I’d insert one here. And then we’d have the emoji election.)

Yet for months this bizarre campaign has been defined less by cutting-edge technology than by one of the most established: email. It’s 2016, and we’re blessed with an embarrassment of ways to securely and conveniently communicate with one another. But all anyone can talk about is Hillary Clinton’s damn emails.

This column is not about the real or imagined scandals exposed by caches of Mrs. Clinton’s and her campaign staff’s messages, which, thanks to the State Department, Russian hackers, Judicial Watch and WikiLeaks now regularly spill into public view.

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The key is not to take a hiatus. But a hiatus also needs to be redefined. A lot of people look at it as letting it all go. No. It's asking, "What is it that you can control?" We can always control what we consume, so that's a massive piece of the pie. And the other key is to be proactive. My rotator cuff is blown out? OK, I'm gonna be doing step-ups and squats. It's a mentality we have—especially in America—of all or nothing, black or white. We're like, "If I can't do something 100 percent, I'm out."

Instead, let’s examine a more basic mystery buried in the emails: Why were all these people discussing so much over email in the first place? Haven’t they heard of phone calls? Face-to-face meetings in dimly lit Washington parking garage? Anyplace else where their conversations weren’t constantly being recorded, archived and rendered searchable for decades to come?

The answer, of course, is that email is as tempting as it is inescapable, for Mrs. Clinton as well as for the rest of us. More than 50 years after its birth, email exerts an uncanny hold on all of our internal affairs.

But everything must meet its maker, and for email, that time is nigh.

The sudden exposure of the Clinton campaign email cache is perhaps the ultimate evidence that we’ve all overcommitted to email — we’ve put too much in it, expected too much from it, and now, finally, we’re seeing the spectacular signs of its impending destruction.

Email is simply not up to the rigors of modern political and business life. It lulls us into a sense of unguarded security that it never delivers. It entices us to spill our darkest secrets, and then makes those secrets available to any halfway decent hacker. There are several alternatives that could take its place, without the same pitfalls, and the Clinton cache shows why we would be wise to adopt one of them.

Let’s pour one out for email, which has had quite a run. Then let’s move on to something else, and dance on email’s grave.

The latest Clinton emails come from the hacked Gmail account of John D. Podesta, Mrs. Clinton’s campaign chairman. I emailed the campaign to ask about the breach and email security practices, but I got no response. (Maybe they’ve shied away from email?) The campaign has refused to confirm the authenticity of the messages, which speaks to one of the shortcomings of email: It can easily be forged, so there’s no good way for anyone reading those messages to confirm that they really are the Clinton campaign’s.

But if you assume the messages are authentic, you quickly discover even more shortcomings of email. What’s most striking about the Podesta cache is how central email has been to the campaign’s operations. In 2016, presidential campaigns, like all large enterprises, are far-flung operations. Lots of people in lots of different places are trying to plan things together. To the extent there’s any centrality to the organization, it’s in email communication.

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