Saturday, April 21, 2018
Opinion

Column: What we lose when the world moves on from email

Though its political implications are yet unclear, the publication of an email chain in which Donald Trump Jr. arranged a June 2016 meeting with a lawyer peddling the Russian government's help for his father's presidential campaign ought to inspire some pretty obvious tech advice: Step away from the inbox, stupid!

That's not a partisan slight. I said pretty much the same thing last year about the emails of John D. Podesta, Hillary Clinton's campaign chairman, whose inbox emptied across the Internet after he clicked on a link he shouldn't have.

What was most notable about the Podesta stash — not to mention earlier releases from the Democratic National Committee and Clinton's own server — was the Clinton campaign's apparent slavishness to email. No thought appeared too big or too small to escape documentation and discussion over a fundamentally insecure communication channel invented more than 50 years ago, and meant for subjects far less weighty than a campaign for the presidency. The Democrats' email troubles suggested how thoroughly email had seduced us, and how deeply we'd all overcommitted to it — and how desperately we all needed to move to something more secure.

Trump's emails only underline that point. But they also suggest what we'll lose when, inevitably, the world does move on to something better than email — an unmatched historical record of some of the most important stories in the world.

Precisely because it's inescapable, insecure and irresistibly convenient, email provides an almost uncomfortably intimate view into the historical record. It preserves time, location and state of mind, the what-when-where-and-who of every story we might want to dig up. The last two decades, email's high-water era, have thus been a bounty for anyone wishing to understand exactly what was happening in the inner circles of powerful organizations — for journalists, historians and prosecutors of white-collar crime, among others.

If common sense prevails, Trump's email thread may serve as the final nail in the coffin of email as the universal office communicator. People in business and politics are already moving on to other methods, from cloud-based business tools like Slack to apps like Signal, which promise the discretion of a spymaster. These tools allow for auto-deletion and encryption; they're not perfectly secret (nothing is), but they're a fortress compared with email.

Yet we should mourn email's death as much as we celebrate it; every organization's gain in privacy is bound to result in a loss of public transparency.

The Trump emails show exactly why. Both Trump and Rob Goldstone, an entertainment publicist who had a relationship with the Trump Organization, understood the sensitivity of their conversation. Goldstone actually noted the sensitivity a couple of times in the email thread.

One of email's best tricks is asynchronicity — you can send an email even if your recipient is away, unlike a phone call. But in this instance both parties appeared available to talk in real time; several of the missives were sent within minutes of each other. And not only that, they often both used iPhones. (Brace yourself: Goldstone's mobile email signature, "This iPhone speaks many languages," is destined to become an unbearable meme.)

In other words, they could both have clicked one app over and hashed all this out in a phone call, which would have been faster and left almost no trace. (They did suggest holding a phone call, but it isn't clear if that took place; in an interview with Sean Hannity, Donald Trump Jr. said he recalled coordinating only through email.)

But, no. Despite the sensitivity, email offered something irresistible to the participants. It was easy and it was there, and it felt secret at the time. Looking at the chain now, you might marvel at the brazenness of their conversation — what sort of numbskull would you have to be to write down, in an email, that you're offering a foreign government's help with a presidential campaign?

But that is often the case with email. More technically sophisticated men than Goldstone and Trump have fallen for email's allure: Emails from Bill Gates made up the key evidence in the Justice Department's long-running case against Microsoft, and Steve Jobs' audacious emails came back to haunt Apple in several legal proceedings. Email undid Enron and played a small part in the recent fall of Travis Kalanick, Uber's former chief executive.

And those are just the famous cases. Email evidence has become a routine linchpin of white-collar criminal prosecution, because everything anyone has ever thought is likely to be contained in email.

Not for long. Savor Don Jr.'s thread; this is email's last hurrah.

© 2017 New York Times

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