Hillary's e-mails and the way we do politics

On a personal account, emails can be deleted permanently, but most government services will store even deleted emails in back-up form.

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Over 7,000 pages of Hillary Clinton’s emails, sent and received while she served as secretary of state, were released to the public on 31 August. The release came not from hackers but from the US state department, in the course of an investigation into Clinton’s use of private email accounts to carry out her professional communications.

The messages themselves are mostly mundane – barring, presumably, the 125 emails that were redacted before release for containing “classified information” – but offer interesting titbits, including David Miliband’s admission that losing the 2010 Labour leadership contest was “tough”. Worth noting, too, is his choice of Arsenal-inspired email handle: “d.gunners”.

Although the messages may not lead to any great insight, other than the threat they pose to Clinton’s presidential campaign, the scandal offers a glimpse of the murky world of politicians’ communications. In both the US and the UK, freedom of information (FoI) legislation dictates that anything recorded in the course of state business – including emails and notes from meetings – should be available to the public if requested. This has prompted various attempts by politicians and government bodies to set up less permanent and accountable ways to talk.

Clinton claims that she used a personal account for “convenience” but it cannot be denied that, until it backfired, the choice of a server run from her New York home would have offered her more privacy than an account on state servers. In 2012 the UK Information Commissioner, Christopher Graham, ruled that a personal email account held by Michael Gove under the pseudonym “Mrs Blurt”, which he used to communicate with advisers, was covered by the FoI Act. And yet, as the FoI specialist Martin Rosenbaum told me, “You’re far more likely to be forced to reveal communications on an official server than a personal one” in both the US and UK, especially if it’s a secret account.

On a personal account, emails can be deleted permanently, but most government services will store even deleted emails in back-up form. These, technically, should also be released to the public if requested. In March this year, the Information Commissioner ruled that York City Council should have searched emergency back-up servers in response to a request for “all” correspondence about a local festival. Clinton, meanwhile, was conveniently able to delete roughly 30,000 “personal” emails from her account – hdr22@clintonemail.com – before handing over her servers to investigators.

Tony Blair, who oversaw the introduction of FoI legislation in the UK in 2000, later commented that it inhibits “frank conversations” about “difficult decisions”. Politicians’ penchants for private accounts, and the increased use of internal messaging systems by government bodies, including the Treasury, imply that FoI legislation is indeed having an effect. Water-cooler chats and instant messaging, their digital equivalent, are replacing emails and memos as forums for thrashing out policy. (Ironically, instant messaging is covered by FoI, too, as long as the messages are stored somewhere and someone specifically requests to see them – a fact most government employees haven’t realised.)

The change is problematic, in that it threatens the accountability that FoI was designed to introduce – but it is also bad news for security. Clinton is under investigation not for any attempt to cover up her messages, but as part of a counterintelligence operation: she claimed she did not send confidential information over her private email, and yet messages deemed “classified” by the state department in this tranche alone stretch into the triple figures.

Personal email accounts are unlikely to meet state security requirements, and instant messaging is only as secure as the program being used. If a state employee deals with casework or public data using an insecure personal email, he or she could be in breach of data protection laws. Even Barack Obama was told by the US security services that he had to keep using a BlackBerry (a revelation that earned him applause from a lone audience member on the US talk show Jimmy Kimmel Live!) because the recording devices on other smartphones can be hacked.

As the Clinton emails demonstrate, employees of the state are snared by the conflicting pressures of legislation, transparency, a fear of saying the wrong thing and security. Citizens have always held politicians to account for their words and actions, but in an age where we can track their deleted tweets and read their emails the public eye must feel uncomfortably all-seeing. 

Barbara Speed is comment editor at the i, and was technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman, and a staff writer at CityMetric.

This article appears in the 03 September 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Pope of the masses