Private Emails? A Personal Perspective on Politicizing Norms of Communication
In Orwell’s 1984, Winston Smith opens himself up to accusations of thought crimes for walking onto a street with a shop where he could buy pen and paper. In 2021, politicians and even the UK’s Information Commissioner wonder if ministers are guilty of some criminal offense for using private email. The ICO, charged with protecting our privacy, does not want to lose data critical to her surveillance of public officials! All in the name of ‘transparency’.
Increasingly, accusations seem to fly around such issues as the security of public officials using personal email. While security, legal, and privacy issues are embedded in these criticisms of the practices of others, my concern is over the degree they lack common sense, any historical perspective, and politicize what is fundamentally a cultural difference that has risen over the decades across different kinds of Internet users. Moreover, technical advances are diminishing the distinctions being drawn. Let me explain on the basis of my experiences.
I began using email around 1974, when I had to call colleagues to tell them to look for an email sent from me. Otherwise, they would not check their inbox. Those were early days, when academics in universities could get an email address from their university if they were at one of the institutions that were early nodes on the ARPANET.
At that time, in the early 1970s, I wrote most of my correspondence by hand, and it was typed up by a pool of typists. I would revise a draft and someone in the pool would revise it for me to mail or fax. A carbon copy of all my letters was (I discovered) put in a chronological file of all correspondence going out of our academic research unit and studiously read by one of our managers. He knew what was going on across the organization by reading all of our outgoing correspondence. This was part of a culture of administrative control, which I accepted, but did not like and was surprised to discover. That said, I was an employee of an organization and in that role, it is arguable that I did not have a true right to privacy within the organization.
Presumably, even in those early days, an archive of all incoming and outgoing emails existed in the university so our manager might have had even better intelligence about our work, but most administrators were not email users. If a malicious user sent hate mail, for example, I would imagine it could be found in the archive, but then again, it is likely to have been sent under another user’s name. (Yes, it was a problem in very early days of email.)
By the early 1980s, one amusing (to me) concern in business and industry around email was its use for social purposes. Before email, most electronic communication was costly for organizations. The telegraph created a mindset in government and industry of every letter and word costing money, so electronic communication, reinforced by fax machines, was that it was considered costly compared to regular, physical mail – later called ‘snail mail’.
So when employees in organizations began using email, managers were concerned about the cost and the potential waste of money if used for social purposes. Academics used university email for anything – teaching, research, or personal reasons – and lived in sort of a free culture, meaning free of control as well as cost. But this was not the case in business and government where the legacy of telegrams, faxes, and costly phone calls created a sense of email being expensive.
One of my students in the early 1980s studied an aerospace company in Los Angeles and found the managers very concerned over the employees using email for personal or social purposes. Rather than counting the letters, they would embellish their business correspondence with a joke or questions or pleasantries about the family, etc. Even then, we defended the social uses of email at work as it would undoubtedly help executives and other employees to adopt this new communication system. Moreover, communication in the workplace has always been a blend of social and business uses, such as over the proverbial watercooler. Nevertheless, an administrative control structure still pervaded the use of communication at work.
It was only when private email services arose, such as through CompuServe, from 1978, and one of the first commercial email services, MCI Mail, which was founded in 1989, that this mindset began to change. Google Mail, was launched in its Beta version from 2002, about the time MCI Mail folded. Private email services like Google Mail made it possible to escape this administrative control structure and the control culture of communication in organizations.
In my own case, having changed universities many times, one of the only steady email addresses I have maintained has been my gmail account, established with the Beta version. I’ve never sensed it being any less secure than my university accounts, and I don’t have the feeling that an administrator is looking over my shoulder. It is free of charge and free of administrative surveillance. I give my data. My main concern is not burdening colleagues with unnecessary or too frivolous email messages. The last thing I want to do is audit myself to determine if my message to a particular person about a particular topic requires me to use my personal email or one of my academic email accounts.
Moreover, today, more individuals are moving to private conferencing (e.g., Zoom, Teams, Skype) and private messaging services (e.g., WhatsApp, WeChat, Telegram, Signal, Slack, or others) rather than email for interpersonal communication. If you are in government or business or academia, you want your colleagues to be exploring and innovating and using those information and communication services that support their work. Don’t dictate what those are. Let them decide in the spirit of bottom-up innovation within your organization. But this is exactly the worry of the ICO and politicians who fear they will not have access to every word written by a public servant.
But will private services undermine security? Increasingly, public organizations from universities to governments are moving more of their services, such as email, to the cloud. That is, they are not running their own home-grown institutional services, but outsourcing to private cloud service providers, which offer pretty good security protection. This is how private gmail is provided as well. So, no, it will not undermine security.
To me, those who discuss email use from such an administrative control perspective are simply administrative control types – in a prerogative sense of that term. I for one do not want to be told what email account or what information or communication services to use for each and every purpose. I am not at the extreme of the ‘free software’ movement of Richard Stallman, but sufficiently supportive of civil liberties that I find these almost Orwellian efforts to police our communication to be a huge mistake.
Some politicians and administrators live in a control culture rather than a free digital culture. However, interpersonal communication is good to support, particularly in these times of incivility and toxic politics. Let’s encourage it and not politicize email or the use of private messaging on any account.
Richard M. Stallman (2002, 2015), Free Software, Free Society, Third Edition. Boston, MA: Free Software Foundation.