Private Emails Are Not (Yet) a Thought Crime

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.[1] 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. 

Winston Smith, 1984

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. 

Reference

Richard M. Stallman (2002, 2015), Free Software, Free Society, Third Edition. Boston, MA: Free Software Foundation. 


[1] https://news.yahoo.com/information-watchdog-launches-investigation-health-194714162.html

The Chatham House Rule Should be the Exception

Can We Make the Chatham House Rule the Exception?

gargoyleBalliol
May I quote you?

It is common to debate the definition and correct implementation of the Chatham House Rule. My issue is with its over-use. It should be used in exceptional cases, rather than being routinized as a norm for managing communication about meetings.

To be clear, the Chatham House Rule (singular) is: “When a meeting, or part thereof, is held under the Chatham House Rule, participants are free to use the information received, but neither the identity nor the affiliation of the speaker(s), nor that of any other participant, may be revealed.”*

One of the central rationales of this rule was to enable more transparency by freeing governmental and other officials to speak without attribution.** Clearly, there are cases in which individuals cannot speak publicly about an issue given their position. Think about the many cases in which news sources do not wish to be identified by journalists. Similar situations arise in meetings, and it is good that The Chatham House Rule exists to use in just such occasions to promote greater transparency.

However, it is arguable that The Chatham House Rule is used in ways that do not promote transparency. For example, it is often misunderstood and used to prevent members of a meeting from conveying information provided at the meeting. Clearly, the original rule left participants ‘free to use the information’, just without identifying the source. This expansion of the Rule runs counter to the aim of the rule’s establishment.

In addition, all too often the Rule is invoked not because the content of a meeting is particularly sensitive, but because it creates a sense of tradition, and an aura of importance. It conveys the message that something important will be discussed at this meeting. However, the function of this is more in marketing a meeting rather than creating a safe setting for revealing secret, confidential, or new information.

A related rationale is that it is just ‘the way we do things’ – the tradition. In this case, there is likely to be no need for less transparency, but a case of blindly following tradition, resulting in information being inadvertently suppressed.

In many ways, the times are making The Chatham House Rule more problematic.

First, history is pushing us toward more transparency, not less. The spirit of the Rule should lead us to apply it only when necessary to open communication, such as around a sensitive issue, not to routinely regulate discussion of what was said in a meeting.

Secondly, the authenticity of information that comes out of a meeting is often enhanced by knowing more information about its source. If a new idea or piece of information is attributed to an individual, that individual can become a first source for authenticating what was said, and for follow up questions.

Thirdly, technical advances are making it less and less realistic to keep the source of information confidential. Leaks, recordings, live blogging and more are making transparency the norm of nearly every meeting. That is, it is better to assume that any meeting is public than to assume any meeting is confidential.

Over a decade ago, I once organized and chaired a meeting that included the UK’s Information Commissioner (the privacy commissioner, if you will), and it was conducted under The Chatham House Rule. At the break, I checked with my IT group about how the recording was going, as we were recording the meeting for preparing a discussion paper to follow. Lo and behold, the meeting was being Webcast! This made for a good laugh by the Commissioner and all when we reconvened, but it also reminded me that everyone should assume the default of a meeting in the digital world is that all is public rather than private.

Finally, there are better ways to handle information in today’s technical and political contexts. Personally, I usually record meetings that are about academic or applied matters, as opposed to meetings about personnel issues, for example. So if we convene a group to discuss a substantive issue, such as a digital policy issue like net neutrality, we let all participants know that presentations and discussions will be recorded. We do not promise that anything will be confidential, as it is not completely under our control, but we promise that our recording will be used primarily for writing up notes of the meeting, and that if anyone is quoted, they will be asked to approve the quote before it is distributed publicly.

Of course, when individuals request that something remains confidential, or confined to those present, then we do everything we can to ensure that confidentiality. (As with The Chatham House Rule, much relies on trust among the participants in a meeting.) But this restriction is the exception, rather than the rule. This process tends to ensure more accurate reports of meetings, enable us to quote individuals, who should get credit or attribution, and support transparency.

The Chatham House Rule was established in 1927 with Chatham House being the UK’s Royal Institute of International Affairs. The worries at that time were more often about encouraging government officials to participate in a discussion about sensitive international concerns by assuring anonymity. Today there are still likely to be occasions when this rule could be useful in bringing people around the table, but that is likely to be exception and not the rule in the era of the Internet, distributed electronic conferencing, and live Tweeting.

th
Chatham House, London

Notes

* https://www.chathamhouse.org/about/chatham-house-rule

** As noted by Chatham House: “The Chatham House Rule originated at Chatham House with the aim of providing anonymity to speakers and to encourage openness and the sharing of information. It is now used throughout the world as an aid to free discussion.” https://www.chathamhouse.org/about/chatham-house-rule