Columns 2015

To all politicians… your emails are NOT private!

Many, many years ago, a dentist I had hired to start the North Slope Borough’s Dental Program came to my house to ask me to have a cup of coffee with his wife. He told me she was feeling very alone and down. It was her first winter in Barrow and the darkness was not helping to raise her spirits; so I invited her over for coffee and we’ve been best friends ever since.

If I hadn’t told you that story, no one would ever have known about it except for the three people involved. That’s because the story occurred before the Internet, social media, Twitter and whatever the heck Snapchat is. We live our lives publicly in a way that would have horrified our parents and grandparents. If it isn’t online, did it really happen?

So when friends tell me that they aren’t on Facebook because they value their privacy, I find myself hard-pressed to not just burst into laughter. There is no privacy left. The worse imaginings of what 1984 would be like pale in comparison to what 2015 is in reality. I can go online, pay a minimal fee to any number of search companies and instantly know everything about you; your address., your phone number, your current and former spouses, how much you paid in property taxes last year. And that’s before I even get to your criminal record.

All of the above is why I’m totally flabbergasted every time another politician gets nailed for using his or her personal email. I worry about anyone who thinks simply forwarding something to a personal account and then responding from that account will somehow make the trail disappear. There is NO privacy left. Your “personal” email is as personal as that dinner you put on Facebook before eating it.

I’ve known Mike Hawker for a long time. We’re not close personal friends, we don’t do lunch or visit; but he’s an old familiar face from our Barrow days and I have always thought of him as a basically decent guy. I also thought of him as at least of average intelligence. But then I read about how he forwarded his professional emails to his personal account on the apparent misconception that in so doing he could hide further exchanges on the topic of said emails. Whether or not what he did is unethical or illegal is not something I have enough information to decide yet. But whether or not he did something fairly dumb is sadly on display for all to behold.

We’ve all written emails that we would be embarrassed to have appear publicly. We think of emails as our private conversations with friends and family, private conversations that will never go beyond the intended recipient. That’s why you can write things about Cousin Edith’s tacky outfit at the family picnic or Nephew Pete’s four beers before noon on Thanksgiving. You never expect it to be seen or read by anyone other than the person to whom you’ve sent it. But as anyone who has ever mistakenly hit the “Reply All” button knows, the best laid plans of mice and men oft go astray and you find yourself explaining to Aunt Betsy why you thought her fruit cake should be used to cover explosives before detonating them.

I’m guessing that most Alaskans have wondered for a long time about the newly renovated Legislative office space in downtown Anchorage. Why, for instance, do the trashcans have to anticipate if a legislator is going to throw trash in it as opposed to waiting until they lift the lid manually? Honestly, I’d have rented them my house for a lot less and run around opening the trashcan lids anytime they wanted me to for a lot less money. There has been something smelly about this deal since the day it was announced. But the revelation of personal email use to apparently end run the public’s right to know about all the negotiations and machinations that went into the lease puts it beyond the realm of smelly and close to the realm of pathetic.

Your email is not secure. Your computer has more cookies on it than you have Oreos in your closet. Please, politicians, you embarrass us enough with your general shenanigans. Wise up about email. It isn’t that hard.