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When will we learn that digital communication isn’t private?

By Tom Keane
November 28, 2010

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Are scoundrels and villains just stupider today than they once were? It used to be that if you were going to commit a crime or merely be a bit naughty, you’d try to cover your tracks. Getting caught was an outcome to be avoided. Yet now we put our transgressions on display for the world to see.

A case in point comes from the campaign of Tim Cahill, state treasurer and erstwhile independent candidate for governor. In the waning weeks of the race, stories emerged that campaign staffers had allegedly traded e-mails about coordinating activities with the Treasury. If true, that’s clearly illegal – public money can’t be used for political campaigns. The attorney general is looking into the matter and, while I have no idea where things will end up, heads could roll. All because, instead of having a meeting about it or even using the telephone, those supposedly involved circulated a bunch of e-mails.

Pretty dumb. If it’s any comfort, though, they’re hardly alone. Football player Brett Favre faces difficult times of his own for salacious text messages sent to ex-model and New York Jets employee Jenn Sterger. Ditto golfer Tiger Woods and his own paramours. New York gubernatorial candidate Carl Paladino got into trouble for forwarding racist jokes. Florida Representative Mark Foley resigned in 2006 after the unearthing of sexually explicit instant messages he sent a 16-year-old congressional page. The Boeing Corp. ousted CEO Harry Stonecipher over indiscreet e-mails sent to a fellow executive that were found on company servers. E-mails by Goldman Sachs employees seemed to confirm an SEC investigation into investor fraud. Federal investigators uncovered internal company e-mails showing that Enron had illegally manipulated California’s electricity markets. The list goes on.

Whether it’s e-mailing, texting, Tweeting, blogging, or commenting on the Web, near-instant digital communications dominate our professional and personal lives. From one point of view, these new technologies are just an improvement on old-fashioned talking, writing, telephoning, and faxing. In truth, though, they are vastly different. The old ways had some semblance of privacy, oftentimes because they were legally protected (such as prohibitions against recording conversations) or because of the limits of technology (forwarding letters to thousands at once was logistically complicated). The most striking difference, however, is the permanence of the new forms of communication. Twenty years ago, if I sent you a letter with inside information on a stock trade, only you and I knew about it. If you were smart, you’d destroy the document and no one would be the wiser.

Not so today. E-mails are never really “sent.” They are just copied, passing from one server to the next in a long daisy chain before popping up in your account. There’s a copy in the system of the person who sent it, one in the system of the recipient, and multiple copies in between. Even if you and I successfully delete an e-mail (a far more difficult task than burning a letter, by the way), it still almost certainly exists on a hard-disk drive somewhere along the line. The fact of the matter is that, absent elaborate encryption, nothing you send is private.

Back when folks wrote letters, much time would be spent agonizing over words, making sure that nothing put in the mail would be inappropriate. For a while, I used to think that the same would happen with electronic communications. People would eventually adapt, learning not to put down thoughts that could get them in trouble.

But we don’t seem to be getting any smarter. Maybe those who claim the Internet is making us dimwitted are right. Earlier this year, a Harvard law student e-mailed controversial opinions about race to a few friends. She soon found herself under attack when one of them decided to “ruin her life” and forward it on. In all likelihood, the student would never have put those casually expressed thoughts in a letter. Electronic communications, however, never really feel the same as formal writing. Rather, their ease and rapidity make them seem more like a conversation. Our internal censors turn off. We babble on about our misdeeds, never considering the risk of public exposure when it comes to wronged spouses, prosecutors, and a public always eager for new gossip.

Tom Keane is a regular Globe Magazine contributor. E-mail him at

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