You’ve Got Mail?

By Denzel McCampbell 

For those who were surfing the web in the late 90’s and early 2000’s, you’ve probably heard the term, “You’ve got mail!” before. Many will remember this being said by a chipper male voice when you received an email message on the America Online (AOL) network.

Email has evolved since those dial-up days to become a central platform for day-to-day communication. Today, email is used to discuss things from dinner plans as someone wraps up a day of work to giving the final approval of a major project. Email is a simple way to communicate in the fast-paced life many Americans find themselves in today.

Think back to the emails you sent yesterday. What were the topics of those emails? Was there anything that would interest your next-door neighbor? Probably an email asking your colleague about lunch options or conducting an email workgroup on an upcoming issue, right? Now think about your work emails specifically. Is there a protocol in place to capture a record of those emails? Are there rules in place to keep confidential and sensitive information within your job’s email network and not on your personal email?

Would you be surprised/worried/upset to know that very few public and elected bodies have substantive rules regarding personal email usage for official business? Most rules are inconsistent at best and leave much discretion to the elected official to choose which emails they disclose.

It is hard to avoid news about Hillary Clinton and her use of a personal email address and server while serving as Secretary of State. In what started as a byproduct of the investigations into the 2011 Benghazi attack, Secretary Clinton’s use of her personal email has ballooned into claims that classified information was sent by Clinton through her personal email.

Then there’s Jeb Bush, who also used a personal email account during his time as governor of Florida. A review of the emails revealed that he discussed issues such as troop deployment and nuclear energy plant security, topics that could be dangerous in the hands of hackers.

This issue does not only exist within the circles of presidential candidates, it also hits very close to home. Last week, the Detroit Free Press discovered that members of Mayor Mike Duggan’s administration, including Duggan himself, use their personal emails to discuss city business. The story focuses on discussions about the Riverside Park land swap deal, which has drawn a considerable amount of public criticism.

The Free Press found that, Detroit’s Corporation Counsel, the city’s top lawyer, communicated with the Detroit International Bridge Company about the deal. Emails including discussions along with the transmission of draft proposals for the deal. The city claims that no rules were broken and that the Corporation Counsel used their personal email because they could not access the city’s email system from home. Basically, they chose convenience over transparency.

The use of personal email accounts by public servants to discuss official business raises many red flags. Not only are personal email addresses susceptible to cyber attacks, but also the use of personal emails lacks the transparency we desperately need and desire in the public arena. Many of those who use their personal email say that they do it because it’s easier. Even Clinton said that she used her personal email, “because I thought it would be easier to carry just one device for my work and for my personal emails instead of two.”

But does that argument really fly? Today, many smartphones have the ability to receive messages from numerous email accounts. Many officials like those in the Duggan administration officials say that they simply cannot access their work email from home. Yet, remote access to email servers is nothing new, which makes it hard to believe that the City of Detroit has not yet adopted that type of technology.

Is convenience really the reason? How can the public trust that what’s being said over personal email is not malicious or against their interest?

Many government servers, along with numerous organizations and companies, have a system that captures any emails that travel through. This allows a way for the public to go back and find emails, to see what was communicated. The use of personal email accounts circumvents this safeguard. The use of personal email accounts allows public officials to delete whatever they see fit, leaving the email to fall into the abyss and taking every ounce of accountability with it.

Transparency and accountability can be applied to emails, though. First off, we can implement rules that prohibit use of personal email accounts when discussing official business. We can also strengthen our Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) laws to require public servants to keep emails sent during their tenure and turn them over to the appropriate public body. This would not only discourage the use of personal email accounts, but also would disallow people to pick and choose with which email is kept or deleted.

Public officials have a duty to answer to those they represent. They should not be allowed to skirt transparency and accountability because of a more “convenient” option. We have the power to change this and we should implement rules that enables people to see what is being discussed when it comes to the public interest.