News - Careful with them e-mails

Anything you write can and will be used against you

To many of us involved in politics, reflecting back on the Reagan years during the recent memorial services for the former president, it seemed like only yesterday that the former governor of California was sworn into office just as the former governor of Georgia was leaving. Nostalgia has a way of obscuring the changes that take place over time. In perhaps no area of modern life is this more apparent than in the growth of technology — specifically, the Internet.

In 1981, when Ronald Reagan took the first oath of office as president, there were just over 200 Internet hosts in existence. Last year, just one generation later, there were nearly 200 million Internet hosts. Estimates on the number of e-mails currently sent each day place the figure at nearly 40 billion and growing exponentially. E-mails, just one generation ago the stuff of science fiction, are now as common — if not more so — than phone calls. Technology that 20 years ago was known but to a few academic geeks and defense industry researchers is now so common that we take it for granted. But should we? Do we — erroneously — assume a level of privacy and security for personal communications transmitted over the Internet that is clearly not warranted? Marcia Neaton, a county commissioner from Gwinnett County, and some community activists who communicated with her by e-mail, have found out just how dangerous such assumptions can be.

Following a recent rezoning dispute, a lawsuit was filed by disgruntled developers in the suburban county. In the ensuing — and still ongoing — legal battle, e-mails have become high-caliber ammunition. Not just official e-mails from or to a public official, but hundreds of pages of personal e-mails sent and received by private citizens communicating with each other. It apparently has reached the point where the county commissioner herself is vowing to sharply curtail her use of the Internet as a way to communicate efficiently — and privately — with constituents. For their part, citizens wishing to make their points of view known to local elected officials, or to ask for information, may now be rethinking this preferred way of communicating.

Thus, an important means of communication — e-mail — heralded as a way to efficiently and privately communicate with public officials in much the same way letters and fliers did during the Revolutionary War era, is now being viewed with increasing skepticism and suspicion. While letters and, later, phone calls themselves, were always susceptible to discovery and use by lawyers and politicians seeking to discredit or prove a case against their adversary, the same technology that makes e-mails uniquely appealing also makes them uniquely dangerous. Typing an e-mail into a computer and pressing the "send" button is pretty darned easy; and it's just as easy to send a message to 435 members of Congress as to a single member; just as easy to send it to five local commissioners as to one.

The problem is, you lose control over who eventually might wind up receiving a copy of your e-mail, because any one of your recipients can forward it to an unlimited number of secondary recipients. The sender's exposure is compounded because the federal government is technologically able to read those e-mails without your knowledge and now, thanks to the PATRIOT Act, it is easier than ever for the government to do so without even securing a warrant such as would be required to eavesdrop on a person's phone calls. Now, on top of all that, e-mails are becoming routinely subject to subpoenas in lawsuits such as the one involving the Gwinnett rezoning case.

All of this should not be terribly surprising to us, however, if we remember the experience of one of the most famous couples of the 1990s — Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky. Where did much of the evidence contained in the Starr report, which laid the ground for Clinton's impeachment by the House in late 1998, come from? E-mails, of course. Who can forget the embarrassingly detailed electronic messages exchanged between the president's young lover and her "friend" Linda Tripp? In a subsequent scandal involving the last-minute presidential pardon given fugitive financier Marc Rich, e-mails sent and received by Denise Rich were fodder for congressional investigators.

The lessons in all this are unfortunately clear. First, never put anything in an e-mail you don't want to appear in the newspaper. Second, never underestimate the ability of a third party to misinterpret or mischaracterize something you've said in an e-mail. And third, remember that the "delete" button on your computer is essentially worthless. Once a message is typed into your computer, it's there; it can be retrieved at some point by someone who knows what they're doing.

As Omar Khayyam said many centuries ago, "The moving finger writes; and, having writ/Moves on: nor all thy piety nor wit/Shall lure it back to cancel half a line/Nor all thy tears wash out a word of it." I don't think he was speaking about e-mails, but he might as well have been. And we'd be just as well advised to heed the Arab sage's advice now as when he penned those words many, many centuries ago.


Bob Barr represented parts of Cobb County and northwest Georgia in Congress from 1995 to 2003.

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