The Privacy BlogPrivacy, Security, Cryptography, and Anonymity

Apr/07

20

Mixed feelings about Whitehouse use of outside email accounts.

I have been following a number of stories like this,Congress Follows Email Trail – WSJ.com, about the Whitehouse use of RNC controlled email accounts to discuss the firings of federal prosecutors. The law appears quite clear. Official Whitehouse email is a document that must be retained. Discussions of firing federal prosecutors sounds official to me. Therefore the Whitehouse was wrong to use outside email addresses to keep the discussions secret.

I am not comfortable with the law in the first place. Email and other electronic communication media like chat and IM are often used more like casual conversation than formal memos. Few would argue that the President’s every word should be recorded at all times. It would make discussion and debate next to impossible. In the process of thinking through an issue one may consider many potentially unpopular ideas, if only for the purpose of argument. Free and unconstrained give and take generally leads to be best understanding and decisions. Free and unconstrained debate can not take place with the world looking over your shoulder and scrutinizing every word.

If we accept that email and chat are used like conversation to hash out ideas, then it is very damaging to the process to place heavy recording and monitoring requirements on it. At the same time, having no oversight substantially reduces accountability. It might even facilitate corruption.

This really shows in a microcosm the greater question of general communications privacy vs. law enforcement access. It is a hard balancing act because there is very little middle ground. Basically you are either monitored or not. Having monitoring of a random half of the messages is going to make everyone unhappy.

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2 comments

  • Richard · June 1, 2007 at 4:09 am

    Hi Lance,

    Great to see you blogging! When I decided to look for an anonymizing solution for our business, I did some light reading about your past and discovered your pioneering efforts in the field.

    About the Whitehouse email accounts… I’m sure the administration feels the “hot breath” of scrutiny just like the rest of us do. If they can’t express their thoughts in private conversation, this country is truly in deep….

    Truly free speech is dependent upon anonymity!

    I’m just a private citizen, but I find myself measuring my words carefully, any time I write to a politician or even complain about an unsatisfactory product or service. And that (I’m sorry to say) doesn’t qualify as free speech.

    We live in dangerous times, and unsung heroes like you are shouldering more than your share of the burden.

    I wish someone (maybe Anonymizer?)would release a product for truly anonymous email. Or a pay-for implementation of TOR.

    As long as I’ve hijacked this far…how about a discussion of the pressure that you’ve come under as a result of being a bastion of free speech? 🙂

    Thanks again for the blog,

    Richard

    Reply

  • Author comment by lance · June 5, 2007 at 6:20 pm

    Thanks so much for the positive feedback! I completely agree about the self censorship. I always thing long and hard about any public statement.

    As to absolutely anonymous email, I will plug an open source project I did in the 90’s. Mixmaster. http://sourceforge.net/projects/mixmaster/

    I stopped working on it some years back, passing it on to an excellent team, but I think it is still the last word in absolute anonymity.

    As to a discussion of pressures and experiences, I certainly plan to blog on that in the future. Thanks again for the encouragement. 🙂

    Reply

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