It’s not classified emails that are the problem

There’s been reporting that the email trove, belonging to Huma Abedin but found on the laptop of her ex-husband, got there as the result of automatic backups from her phone. This seems plausible; if it is true then it raises issues that go beyond whether any of the emails contain classified information or not.

First, it shows how difficult it is for ordinary people to understand, and realise, the consequences of their choices about configuring their life-containing devices. Backing up emails is good, but every user needs to understand what that means, and how potentially invasive it is.

Second, to work as a backup site, this laptop must have been Internet-facing and (apparently) unencrypted. That means that more than half a million email messages were readily accessible to any reasonably adept cybercriminal or nation-state. If there are indeed classified emails among them, then that’s a big problem.

But even if there are not, access to someone’s emails, given the existence of textual analytics tools, means that a rich picture can be built up of that individual: what they are thinking about, who they are communicating with (their ego network in the jargon), what the rhythm of their day is, where they are located physically, what their emotional state is like, and even how healthy they are.

For any of us, that kind of analysis would be quite invasive. But when the individual is a close confidante of the U.S. Secretary of State, and when many of the emails are from that same Secretary, the benefit of a picture of them at this level of detail is valuable, and could be exploited by an adversary.

Lawyers and the media gravitate to the classified information issue. This is a 20th Century view of the problems that revealing large amounts of personal text cause. The real issue is an order of magnitude more subtle, but also an order of magnitude more dangerous.

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