Back when it began, email was a harmless new toy. In the era when we baby boomers first went online — at the dawn of time or, at least, in those now-quaint 1990s — we took to our AOL and Yahoo mail accounts like proverbial fuzzy little ducks to water.
It seemed so unthreatening … just an easy, novel way to play around on the World Wide Web: Remind your spouse to pick up butter and eggs on the way home from work. Send a link to the Hampster Dance or Dancing Baby. Share impolite political humor and snarky jokes in the privacy of your inbox; no one would be the wiser.
It was fun. It was invisible. It was free! And just like that, many of us were hooked.
The whole concept of chattering across the internet snared our generation in no time at all — sort of like Pokemon Go today, only minus Vaporeon, Mewtwo and Charmander and utilizing dial-up. It was useful, too. We could send a quick note to a colleague and join in conversations that spanned the continental divide. Like magic, messages materialized out of the ether — “you’ve got mail.”
Who dreamed those innocuous notes might survive out there forever?
Live and learn. Email and its newer, more potent social-media cousins have led us into a quagmire we never imagined, back when we began to trust our thoughts to their gauzy, ephemeral embrace. Just ask the Sony Pictures execs whose exchanges were hacked by North Korea. Just ask Hillary, whose ultimately vanilla archives became the basis of year-long questions and review.
Like countless of her top-level peers — George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice come to mind — she slipped into adopting her email-address-for-success as an everyday essential. Email’s true evil superpower — it never dies — dawned on her, and all of us, rather slowly.
Be honest, now. You never thought of it, either. Do you remember sharing those first silly IMs on America Online … if, that is, you’d been born by the early 1990s? Do you recall your own kids’ reluctance to “friend” Mom and Dad on Facebook, protecting their private (horrors!) teen personas? What about those first gleeful tweets? And on the all-pro frontlines, how about those once-mandatory Blackberrys, tucked into the paw of every power player from D.C. to downtown Fargo?
Back in the day, only the true wonks who walked among us thought much about what’s now so terribly, alarmingly obvious: Web-based communication is forever. A permanent record that’s nearly immortal is the price we’ve paid for the wonders of the internet. Every email you send, every text you tap out, every IM and, yes, even that Snapchat that’s supposed to disappear … they may be inscribed on distant servers for all time. Someday someone, somewhere, with whatever nefarious motive may uncover them, to your belated chagrin.
When we click “delete,” we naively think that means the message is erased. Think again. It still resides in the silicon guts of your computer, phone or tablet unless you take the arcane aggressive steps that the pros know to eliminate it from your own memory.
And that’s just the beginning. You have no control — none — of the copies that its transmission has created, both on the recipient’s hardware and all the invisible waypoints in between. In Web World, nothing ever really dies. Advancing technology, coding geniuses, and everything from unfriendly nations to lusting marketing geniuses long ago weaponized that data.
We’ve all embraced a digital Tar Baby. Before, my generation could take our privacy for granted. It was just good manners. Few particularly cared to crack that code, and if they did, the limited tools of an earlier day cost surreptitious snoops plenty of time and trouble.
Once, it was as easy as glancing back over your shoulder to ensure no one was listening. The telephone was mostly trustworthy, thanks to the gap between the party line’s demise and the advent of widespread phone surveillance. When it came to your genuinely personal missives, ballpoints and yellow tablets still were the medium of choice. After all, you could crumple and hide those scribbled notes or simply toss them away. And if you were truly inspired by TV and movie spy craft like 007 and “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.,” you could always chew and swallow them.
Eavesdropping was rude. So was the very human impulse to pass on ill-gotten gossip. Oh, we frail humans were known to slip, but we minimized our sin by warning eager co-conspirators, “Now, don’t tell anyone.”
I never imagined I’d eventually yearn for the low-tech days of saner gossip. But here we are. After witnessing the dire consequences of countless email hacks — whether somehow portrayed as high-minded free speech, as the very first Wikileaks were characterized, or trumped up to titillate by a gloating black-hat hacker — it’s time to rethink this whole subject.
It has come to this, friends: No email (or any other form of digital communication) is every truly private, or truly gone. The only thing that will save us is being boring enough to not be worth the hacker’s bother.
Oh, we were all so sweetly innocent when we first stumbled into this particular swamp! Now that we’ve spotted the first alligators, I fear it’s too late to find our way back out.
Think before you press those keys and commit your deepest thoughts. Think twice before you click “send” to launch that data into the ozone. Think thrice before you toss off that snarky quip, that angry complaint, that perfect response that you thought of only after the argument was over.
It’s all out there, my friends, and it’s not going away. Someday, an idle computer whiz in a hellhole you’ve never heard of may be able to reconstitute your words with nothing more than a few keystrokes and a smirk.
What alarms me most is that even now, knowing that disclosure could be just a couple of clicks away, most of us still count mostly on good luck. Our digital front doors still stand wide open.
Do you doubt? Then, consider this. After 25 years of serious acquaintance with the Web … after flinging quintillions of emails around the globe … after scandalous hacks of everything from Swiss banks to Sony Pictures … and today, hacked DNC messages have been weaponized and timed to attempt to influence who’ll be our next president … do you know what’s still the most common password here on planet Earth?