STATE OF THE ART
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.
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.
You can see why this can be handy. Having a single place to discuss everything makes teams more efficient. In the Clinton campaign, email is used as a way to convey news, to set out tactics and strategy, to theorize, to push back, to gossip. It’s used in place of phone calls and face-to-face meetings; it’s used as an instant messenger, a daily calendar and a collaborative whiteboard.
“It suggests that they hadn’t had their sense of security punctured yet,” said Adam Segal, an expert on cybersecurity at the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of “The Hacked World Order.” “Once you have had that breached, you don’t go back to that world where you write down sensitive things in email. If you have something sensitive to say, you’re going to use the phone or walk down the hallway.”
One thread from the spring of 2015 is instructive, suggesting both email’s advantages and its enormous flaws. Over the course of three days, a half dozen senior members of the campaign used email to discuss a sensitive topic: Should the campaign allow people who lobby on behalf of foreign governments, known as registered foreign agents, to raise donations on its behalf? Experts on the issue went over the legal and political ramifications, and various members weighed in on two ideas — take no money from foreign agents, or take some money on a case-by-case basis, depending on the foreign government the agent represented. (Canada would be O.K.; North Korea would not.)
By the second day of discussions, the thread was getting long and going nowhere, so Robby Mook, the campaign manager, proposed a quick phone call to hash out the idea. He almost apologized for suggesting a call, which he worried was too grown-up, “too processy.”
The phone call apparently happened. But in the Clinton campaign, even a phone call needed to be documented in email. So after the call, another staff member reported on the decision made during the call: to bar any donations from foreign agents.
But it didn’t end there. Marc E. Elias, the campaign’s general counsel, then chimed in to say that he hadn’t been on the call but that he opposed the ban on foreign donations, which he said would feel arbitrary.
That set off another round of discussions, sparking annoyance among some people on the thread. Finally, Mr. Mook wrote in to say that thanks to Mr. Elias, he had changed his mind, and was now leaning toward taking money from foreign agents. “Are you guys O.K. with that?” he asked.
That prompted the kicker from Jennifer Palmieri, the campaign’s communications director: “Take the money!!” she wrote from her iPhone.
In the days following WikiLeaks’ publication, this thread became a campaign issue. Donald J. Trump even drew attention to Ms. Palmieri’s line at a rally this week.
But it didn’t have to be so. If they had been using some other system to communicate, they would most likely have avoided this trouble.
A more modern communication system, something like Slack or HipChat, could still be hacked, but would have allowed for a central administrator to set an archiving policy. After a few days or weeks, this sort of conversation would have been erased. That’s less practical for email, which by its very nature is decentralized. Once you send an email, your thread resides on every device that every recipient ever downloaded it on.
Better still, an app like Signal, which encrypts its messages (and which the campaign is now reported to be using), would have made cracking the messages more difficult in the first place.
But there’s something even more pernicious than weak security here. The deeper problem with email is that it has never quite settled on a social mode. An email can be as formal as a legal letter or as tossed off as drive-by insult. This invites confusion. For instance, in context, Ms. Palmieri’s “Take the money!!” doesn’t sound so bad — it looks like a quick, half-cheeky way to end an overlong discussion. If it were said on a phone call or an instant message, “Take the money” would have sounded like an entirely normal way to end the conversation.
But email comes with no expectations. Because everything else in the thread sounds serious, Ms. Palmieri’s ending line can easily be colored as more sinister.
Finally, it’s worth noting how much time and how many emails — more than a dozen — it took the group to arrive at its decisions. Email sometimes tricks us into feeling efficient, but it rarely is. Because it’s asynchronous, and because there are no limits on space and time, it often leads to endless, pointless ruminations. If they had ditched email and just held a 15-minute meeting, members of the campaign could have hashed out the foreign-agent decision more quickly in private.
In other words, limits often help. Get on the phone, make a decision, ditch your inbox. The world will be better off for it.