No matter how we try to move on, email’s problems will follow us
In July 1994, the New York Times reported on an email hoax — one of the first of many more that would, over the next two decades, make headlines. Samuel Brown, then an assistant professor at Fordham University in the Bronx, had decided to bulk-message 150 people in Abilene, Texas. He claimed the reason was purely academic. Brown said he was “curious about what kind of a response his students would get to an assignment that would require each of them to reach 150 strangers by E-mail, or electronic mail. So, posing as a student, he tried it himself.”
In his email, Brown told recipients he was a student at Fordham named Sharon S. Neinstein (in reality, this was Brown’s wife’s maiden name), and “asked the correspondents for their own views on the town’s pros and cons,” something he told the Times he was going to legitimately have his students do, too. But the test was revealed as phony when residents of the small Texas town turned out to be surprisingly enthusiastic about the query: “A few mentioned the E-mail message to The Abilene Reporter-News, which, after a little investigation, concluded that there was no Sharon S. Neistein,” the Times reported. The ruse quickly fell apart.
To readers twenty-three years later and over the millennial dividing line, this one-day techno-curio story seems mostly quaint — a relic from the dawn of our information era. It’s not. Nothing could be more relevant.
Monday night, CNN went big on an exclusive. A self-described email prankster — a UK man — revealed to the network that in the past few weeks, he had successfully fooled top White House officials into responding to fake emails, purportedly from other senior Trump team members. One of his victims even included Tom Bossert, the White House’s Homeland Security advisor responsible for cybersecurity. The prankster, who goes by the handle @Sinon_Reborn, also hooked recently-resigned White House press secretary, Anthony Scaramucci, into a conversation with a phony then-Chief of Staff Reince Priebus.
The episode raises a number of immediate concerns, including that White House officials are careless email responders (and possibly that they are using personal email accounts). It suggests that computer security in the White House, which, as anywhere, is always dependent on the vigilance of users, is woefully lacking. In this case, members of the White House were tricked merely for the prankster’s own amusement, but it is not difficult to extrapolate from here about what might have occurred had those motives been nefarious, instead.
But it is also a reminder of something else: That no matter how far we think we’ve come since the distant beginnings of the internet, we have not traveled a great distance. For all the leaps in communications that we have taken — social media, text messaging, emoji, and so forth — we still largely live in a world of email. And, because email, along with all its faults, has been so foundational to the internet we now use every day, even leaving the format itself behind won’t free us from its influence.
In the Times more recently, Farhad Manjoo considered the case of email in 2017. Following the latest bombshell news story originating from emails — this time, between Donald Trump Jr. and Rob Goldstone regarding a meeting last summer with a Russian lawyer (among others) at Trump Tower — Manjoo wondered what might happen when (he assumes it’s when) the world finally moves on from email to a more secure form of communication.
We will, he wrote, leave behind the ability to tap into “an unmatched historical record of some of the most important stories in the world.” Email, Manjoo wrote, “preserves time, location and state of mind, the what-when-where-and-who of every story we might want to dig up.”
From the Enron corporate email trove, to the emails between academics studying climate change, to Hillary Clinton’s private server and the Democratic party’s national headquarters, email has served as both a handy tool for both a realistic unearthing of history, as well as fodder for the wildest conspiracy theories. Email has become a pillar of the technological society we have built, both good and bad.
And it could get quite bad. Worse, even, than a mass misinterpretation of a conversation. Email remains a primary access point for wide-scale hacking — something on a much grander scale than penetrating the private politico correspondence with the aim of scuttling a presidential campaign. In 2015, for example, significant portions of Ukraine’s power grid were taken offline by hackers who had earlier gained entry to the system via an email phishing scam.
So why not just adopt something more secure, or totally different from email? To some extent, we can’t.
One of the reasons email has become so much like more familiar infrastructure like roads or even the postal service, is due to its genesis at a time when the internet was much different than it is currently. If you had an account over here, you could send an email to someone over there, even if you didn’t share the same email provider. This remains the case. A personal account can send and receive mail to and from a corporate account; a Yahoo! account can send and receive mail to and from a Gmail account, and so on.
Now, messaging is different. You are either on a platform or you aren’t. There is some compatibility between them, and mobile phones, replete with apps, make it easier to speak to people via separate channels, but they are not like email. There is no single portal. You are on Slack for work, WhatsApp for your personal private chats, and perhaps Facebook messenger or Snapchat for something else. To some extent, they all offer a level of security that email does not provide, but (so far) they have not replaced it. And, unless the corporate owners of each of these new platforms agree to coordinate somehow to mimic the all-access pass of email, they probably won’t.
Moreover, the faults we never solved in email will return, no matter the messaging platform we adopt.
Earlier this month, Facebook users started to receive a warning message from their friends, sometimes multiple times in the same day. The warning — a forwarded message with the text duplicated exactly every time — alerted them via Facebook’s messenger app not to accept any friend requests from someone named Jayden K. Smith.
“Please tell all the contacts in your messenger list not to accept Jayden K. Smith friendship request,” the note read. “He is a hacker and has the system connected to your Facebook account. If one of your contacts accepts it, you will also be hacked, so make sure that all your friends know it.” It then carried instructions on how to forward the message to a number of people on a user’s friend list.
It was a hoax, which Facebook quickly debunked.
But all the same tripwires from 1994 were there, as they are everywhere online: the anonymity of the messenger; the subsequent ‘virality’ of the message itself; and the fact that it was fake.
We could all stop using email. It might make life easier. At least, it might make us less open to incrimination after-the-fact. And the overall appearance of the pace of change suggests that such a move is inevitable. Yet, it is not — not in the way we think, anyway. Even if we were to migrate en masse to a different form of communication, we would not escape the world that email created. We may never move on.