I’m a commercial litigator in the Internet age, which means that I’ve spent thousands of hours reading random other people’s emails. And I can tell you, people are shitty at policing their emails.
Anyone whose job involves constant email traffic will start to treat it like a conversation. See a new mail, read it, type your response, hit send – all in few seconds. Most of the time it’s fine: David needs to know who’s got ownership of the presentation deck for tomorrow, you tell him it’s Michelle, David says “thx.” Every day dozens of these messages are coming in and going out and only a handful get your close attention.
Sometimes, though, this casualness is problematic. Sometimes you tell a joke that makes your coworkers laugh but is probably inappropriate for the workplace. Sometimes you write something in anger or frustration that you later regret sending out, like bashing an abrasive client behind their back. Sometimes you just write something down that would have been wise to keep off the record – and you don’t have to be a criminal or a fraud to care about your paper trail.
You probably don’t even realize when you do this; even these problem emails are usually fine because the people you’re writing to don’t notice, let alone care. The emails keep coming and going, the old ones are pushed off the top of your inbox, they disappear and you quickly forget about them.
Or at least they seem to disappear, because these emails aren’t going anywhere. Even the ones you delete may be preserved in a backup archive. And buried within the tens of thousands of emails you've shoveled into your archive, glowing like radiant beacons of feces, are every one of the questionable emails you’ve ever sent – ready to be dredged to the surface in seconds if someone has an opportunity and a reason to look.
That’s what makes indiscriminate hacking dumps, including the recent attack on the DNC, so dangerous: when these radioactive turds are made available to be mined, isolated and broadcast to the world, it can make any organization look like a disaster.
It doesn’t matter how good a person you are, or how well you police your emails, because we create such a huge volume of email traffic that even rare missteps pile up; if I get access to 20,000 of your emails, I guarantee I’ll find 10 that I can use to make you look like a monster. And this isn’t even counting all of the completely innocuous things we say that can be made to look incriminating when pulled out of context, especially if someone has a professional motivation to damage your image. Everybody’s emails – and I mean everybody, you included – are full of hidden landmines that would explode if they were aired openly. Think of it like Internet porn – almost all of us watch it at least sometimes, but if you publish one guy’s porn searches in isolation that guy will seem like a pervert.
In a lawsuit, these incriminating emails can be treated objectively. Each side has an opportunity to provide context or explanation, and if an email is salacious but not really relevant you can try to have it excluded. Perhaps more importantly, because the most explosive “hot docs” are often repeatedly attached to filing after filing, they tend to lose their initial shock value by the time consequential decisions are being made.
Not true in the court of public opinion. When people are paying passing attention, and it takes a sentence to claim something is awful and a paragraph to explain why it’s not, the exciting headline will always win. The most attention-grabbing voices prevail, often people with a professional interest in titillation or political damage. The shock value lingers, while we ignore the explanations and retractions.
The worst part of these hack-and-leaks, though, is that they don’t feel misleading. Right now you might be thinking, “Okay, maybe hacks are bad, but Wikileaks didn’t make the DNC write those emails. And you’re just deflecting, I might have made some offensive jokes in my emails but I never committed election fraud and rigged a primary.” Right now, I'm not speaking to the content of these particular documents. Sure, leaks like this might uncover actual malfeasance. But in this kind of release there’s no real incentive for most people to separate real from imaginary scandals, and we often lack the knowledge to even do so.
When you look at an email, it feels like you’re looking at the underlying facts. But you’re not, at least in practice. You don’t know who these people are, on any intimate level. You don’t know their working relationships to each other. You don’t know what shared knowledge informs the conversation but isn’t mentioned in the text. You don’t know the precise meaning of ambiguous terms or shorthand. You don’t know the particulars of how this business normally functions on a daily basis.
So you fill in all of these blanks and more with your own ignorant, probably incorrect assumptions. You never just read an email and reach an objective conclusion from it – you read an email, filter it through a lens of uninformed and likely bullshit guesses about the context, and then form a conclusion. And, in this case, there's also the thousands of people with a professional interest in misleading you about what the emails mean, which is particularly easy when you already have an axe to grind.
There is a deep asymmetry when one actor is exposed in this manner while others still have their dirt safely in the basement. The fact that the DNC emails were hacked and released for a deliberate political purpose (at the very least by Julian Assange, if not the Russian government) should be giving give people pause – the goal is for you to be manipulated, so you should be extra cautious about the conclusions you reach. But that’s not how we act. We jump to conclusions and chase sensationalism, fit the information we like into our preexisting biases, and incorporate our initial, uninformed shock into the mental catalog that will forever influence our opinion of the subjects.
This is dangerous and results in a less, not a more informed public, and it should be worrisome for us to see this type of intrusion become a staple of the political process. There has to be a sphere that we’re allowed to keep private, and which can only be invaded in a controlled legal proceeding with proper checks and balances.
Because, at the end of the day, you don’t want to live in a world where all of your dirty laundry belongs to everyone. Consider that as you gleefully rifle through someone else's closet.