When Will We Realize Email Isn't Private?

Whose fault is it when our messages go viral? The problem is that we assume email is essentially like speech. Unless there are snoops eavesdropping, we proceed as if what we say in private, stays private. We forget that email isn't speech, yet we have come to rely on those short written messages as if they were.

Public exposure might come from carelessness, a lawsuit, a leak, or a hack. In the current political season of Sturm und Drang, Debbie Wassserman Schultz (as head of the Democratic National Committee) - and now former Secretary of State Colin Powell - found their personal emails all over the media, thanks to hacking, probably by the Russian Bears. Email's beginnings were mundane enough.

In 1971, Ray Tomlinson (a computer engineer) sent an arbitrary string of letters between two so-called minicomputers that were sitting in the same room. Back then, people relied heavily on landline telephones and the U.S. Postal Service for getting information from one place to another. Social networking was what you did at a party, and the word "hack" was largely reserved for either a taxi cab or an uninspired writer.

Fast forward almost half a century, and our communication and media pathways are radically transformed. By late 2008, the volume of text messages in the U.S. had surpassed that of phone calls. Landlines could soon become museum pieces, and many organizations are eliminating voicemail in favor of digital messaging. Of course we still talk with one another, but given the reach of our social circles - different schedules, different time zones - physical, durable writing is increasingly edging out face-to-face, ephemeral conversation.

This is why it's become so easy to confuse our written messages with speech. Studies show that many teenagers and young adults don't even think of their online messages as being "writing." Both speech and digital communication tend to be informal. Both are commonly composed on the fly, without editing. And both can be blunt. (No one's listening, right?)

One of Colin Powell's hacked - and leaked - emails is a nice example of conversation-like digital messaging. When a former member of Obama's administration suggested this past spring, via email, that Powell consider becoming a presidential candidate in the Republican primary, Powell forwarded the message to an aide, accompanied by the single word "Sigh." Not exactly statesman's rhetoric, but perfectly capturing the facial expression and body posture we might expect, had the exchange occurred in person.

Our challenge today is that although we live in a post-Snowden world, written digital messaging has become the coin of the realm for communicating, including when we want to share thoughts and feelings not intended for others. It's hard to imagine all private conversations moving to those benches in the parks frequented by Cold War spies. Equally unlikely is our shifting, en mass, from the likes of Gmail to Snapchat, where messages vanish shortly after being sent.

An alternative solution might involve self-monitoring of what we put into our messages. As an internal Amazon memorandum from 1998 put it, "there are some communications that should not be expressed in writing."

Maybe this tack makes sense in an organizational - or political - context, where messages are findable, open for legal review, or subject to local leaks. But business prudence doesn't address the larger vulnerability of external hacks, where the world might have a front row seat to your personal foibles or judgments about those of others.

As a researcher, I have followed our blossoming love affair with electronically-mediated communication, as we have put our faith and secrets in the hands of the unknown puppeteers running - or hacking - our online communication. I have watched how the spontaneity made possible by near-instant exchange of messages with people anywhere in the world is being increasingly threatened by those with accidental, legal, or illicit access.

Unless we head for those park benches, I don't have an easy way out. Maybe, as Dr. Stangelove said, we just need to learn to stop worrying and love the bomb.