So simple, so dangerous.

Photographer: Mike Clarke/afp/getty images

E-Mails Are Never Really Private

Justin Fox is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the editorial director of Harvard Business Review and wrote for Time, Fortune and American Banker. He is the author of “The Myth of the Rational Market.”
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I was in the middle of an e-mail to an old friend this week, and had written a sentence about a mutual acquaintance that was more than 50 percent positive but contained a snarky word or two. I paused. “Is that necessary?” I thought to myself.

No, it wasn’t. So I deleted the sentence.

Maybe it was the Neera Tanden effect. But I think it was really the Henry Blodget effect.

Blodget’s e-mails were made public in 2002 by former New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer. A year later the Securities and Exchange Commission hit young Henry with a $4 million fine and a permanent ban from the securities industry.  The issue was that, although the e-mails contained honest commentary on the dot-com companies Blodget was following as an analyst for Merrill Lynch, his published research reports did not.

So in that case the e-mails themselves were actually a lot less embarrassing than what Blodget had been saying in public. But I do remember taking the lesson from the whole affair that nothing one writes in an e-mail is entirely private.

Since then, e-mail revelation after e-mail revelation has only reinforced that view. Sometimes, as with Blodget, the e-mails are obtained by a prosecutor. Sometimes they are unthinkingly forwarded by an acquaintance. Sometimes they are cut and pasted and sent to a newspaper by somebody who doesn’t like you. And sometimes they are acquired and handed over to WikiLeaks by Russian hackers who break into the account of somebody you send lots of e-mails to.

That last is what happened to Tanden, the president and chief executive officer of the Center for American Progress, a Democratic think tank. She communicates frequently with her predecessor at CAP, John Podesta, who happens to be Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign chairman. In March, Podesta fell for a phishing scam most likely run by Russian spies. And for the past few weeks, WikiLeaks has been sharing the resulting bounty with the world.

The Tanden message that has gotten the most attention was a less-than-friendly description of Harvard law professor and former presidential candidate Lawrence Lessig. On his blog, Lessig reacted magnanimously, writing:

We all deserve privacy. The burdens of public service are insane enough without the perpetual threat that every thought shared with a friend becomes Twitter fodder.

Yes, we all deserve privacy! But by this point we should all be aware that we don’t quite have it with e-mails. They are just too easily copied and forwarded and hacked and searched. And while you can do things to fight the hacking -- like using two-factor identification, which everyone should do, or becoming an amateur encryption expert -- it still seems that, on the continuum between private and public, e-mails will always be well to the public side of letters, phone calls and in-person conversations.

E-mail is also really useful in organizing our lives and work, of course. And having all that organizing laid out in public can be excruciating even if it is totally innocent. As Tanden told BuzzFeed’s Ben Smith Thursday:

It’s been a tough experience. My kids’ names are in those emails. I’d like to make a joke about it, but it’s honestly been a pretty terrible experience.

I’m not going to say people should use code names for their kids in e-mails (although that might be kind of fun). And WikiLeaks’ willingness to make e-mails like that public without blocking out the names is pretty reprehensible.

Still, please remember -- especially if you’re a public figure -- that anything you write in an e-mail could find its way into public view. And if you can’t say something nice, maybe just pick up the phone.

(Corrects eighth paragraph to indicate that Lawrence Lessig is a law professor at Harvard.)
  1. Don’t worry. Everything worked out OK for him!

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Justin Fox at justinfox@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
James Greiff at jgreiff@bloomberg.net