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What’s So Special About Email?

By Chris | September 18, 2008

As you problem know, someone recently hacked into one of Sarah Palin’s Yahoo! email accounts and posted a number of her messages on the web. As I suspected, the “hack” was nothing more than resetting the password on Palin’s account by answering her secret question. Apparently, Governor Palin didn’t consider someone might be able to guess that she met her husband at “Wasilla High.” In my experience, people don’t always use the best discretion when creating secret questions that can unlock their accounts. In college, I was able to gain access to my friend’s email account by guessing that he was born in Seattle, WA. With access to his email account, I was able to gain access to his facebook account. I promptly updated his relationship status and changed his favorite T.V. show to Grey’s Anatomy.

But, what interests me about this story is the uproar over Palin’s insistence on using private email accounts (such as Yahoo!) to communicate with her staffers. From The NYT:

Interviews show that Ms. Palin runs an administration that puts a premium on loyalty and secrecy. The governor and her top officials sometimes use personal e-mail accounts for state business; dozens of e-mail messages obtained by The New York Times show that her staff members studied whether that could allow them to circumvent subpoenas seeking public records.

From The Guardian:

The use of non-government email services to conduct official business has been criticised in the past. Official government communications are required to be preserved under federal law. Without using official communications channels, it remains unclear whether emails from private accounts are being correctly kept.

It seems excessive to require elected representatives to save every email they ever write. Not all email messages should be considered public records. We don’t record every phone conversation made by government officials and enter it into the public record. Why are emails treated differently? The problem arises because email can be used to send messages of lasting importance. Memos, reports, and agreements are all of this nature. However, email is more frequently used for personal and informal communication. What if Palin emails a staffer for fashion advice or asks for tips on how to connect with older voters? There is no public interest in preserving such chit chat. To make the matter worse, state regulations in this matter are quite vague. From Stateline.org:

On one level, rules about how to preserve e-mail for public records have not caught up with the technology. Sunshine laws in 18 states do not refer to e-mail at all, according to the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, an open government advocacy group. Even in states such as Missouri and Texas where laws or regulations explicitly require preserving some official e-mail, decisions on which messages to keep or discard vary by department and are sometimes left to individual employees.

In this light, Palin’s decision to use different email accounts hardly appears insidious. No one wants to be on the record all the time. If we required all email message to be saved, devious politicians would just switch to other methods of communications. There are lots of substitutes. And, after reading the Myth of the Rational Voter, I’ve come to believe that too much transparency can be a bad thing. The best politicians tell the masses what they want to hear while supporting legislation that produces the best results. That becomes tough to do if your email is under constant surveillance.

Topics: Economics, Political Science, Web 2.0 | 1 Comment »

One Response to “What’s So Special About Email?”

  1. Benjamin Wright Says:
    September 18th, 2008 at 9:56 pm

    On account of Open Records Acts, state governments are wise to insist that employees (including governors) route all business e-mail through a central e-mail archive and to encourage employees to take all personal e-mail to personal accounts. –Ben
    Ben’s post on the issue

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