Why do people still use email — or at least not secure it?
U.S. election campaign leaks demonstrate security and privacy issues of this aging medium
As the political campaigning south of the border dominates headlines and social media feeds, one seemingly innocuous technology has been at the heart of ongoing scandals: email.
First came the controversy over Hillary Clinton's private email servers and the subsequent scrutiny of the contents of her deleted messages.
Since then, there's been a steady stream of email hacks, with thousands of Democratic National Committee emails published by WikiLeaks throughout the campaign.
These hacked emails, many of which were the result of phishing, feature messages from Clinton, her campaign chair, the campaign's communication director and other prominent members of her team. An email leak over the summer, just before the Democratic National Convention, led to the resignation of DNC chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz.
It's enough to make you wonder why they all keep using email, or at the very least, why they haven't taken more security precautions.
Security vulnerabilities and privacy issues are just the tip of the iceberg.
According to a recent report, over 200 billion emails are sent each day. Mixed in with the important messages is a slew of spam, advertisements and other useless information, making email inefficient, as well as overwhelming, for many users.
The security breaches that have plagued the DNC don't just impact high-powered politicians.
Amid the ongoing political leaks, Yahoo revealed a hack impacting over 500 million user accounts. In a statement, the company said that the breached data may have included names, email addresses, telephone numbers, dates of birth, even encrypted security questions and answers.
Wait — there's good news
The good news is that all this bad news gets us talking about the security of email, which many users often take for granted.
"Hopefully the bright lining of all these hacks will be people finally using two-factor authentication and password managers," says Jules Polonetsky, the CEO of the Future of Privacy Forum, a D.C.-based privacy think tank.
As for the sense of being overwhelmed by our inboxes, we've only got ourselves to blame, says Mario Vasilescu, the founder of Rewordly, an app designed to help manage inbox clutter by streamlining the way teams share information and articles.
"The majority of its inefficiency is from its misuse. It has become a catch-all for every last thing, whether it's simple questions or requests, sharing of information, to the more banal subscription emails."
That ubiquitous "catch-all" nature of email is what gets us into trouble.
Manjoo writes, "In the Clinton campaign, email is used as a way to convey news, to set out tactics and strategy, to theorize, to push back, to gossip."
Although we have more options available to us than ever before, when it comes to how we engage with each other, email has established itself as a de facto mode of digital communication.
With texts and Facebook messages and instant messaging, it can be confusing to know where to look for a specific message, and in that respect, email is still considered the default.
Vasilescu says, "Email is universal, regardless of email client and across generations, geographies, platforms."
All that said, it's worth pointing out that younger generations aren't as bound to email as those of us who have been using it for decades.
The nostalgia of email
When I asked my current class of graduate students how they use email to communicate, the consensus was that they use email, but prefer other, more conversational modes of communication. Masters of Digital Media student Diane Stolte said, "I personally love email in the same way I love receiving letters in the mail. The nostalgia of it can make me excited."
But, she adds, "In terms of communicating with friends I would never use it."
In addition to its notable impact on efficiency, this new kind of messaging interface also has security benefits. In the case of the Clinton campaign, had the team been using a centralized tool like Slack, they could have better managed more sensitive conversations.
While a service like Slack is not immune to being hacked, because the messages are all centralized, conversations can be archived and erased. That is much more difficult with email, since once you've sent it to someone, that message is downloaded onto their device.
The return of face-to-face?
"I've already seen substantial shifts with academic colleagues, myself included, whereby we use email less and less for sensitive discussions and move them either to the phone or preferably, face-to-face conversation," says Gabriella Coleman, Wolfe Chair in Scientific and Technological Literacy at McGill University, and author of Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy: The Many Faces of Anonymous.
"After six years of high-profile email leaks and especially those from this summer and fall, I suspect more people, especially those in important position of power, will move away from saying anything in email but official and squeaky clean statements with the occasional slip-up."
So is the era of email over?
The reason we have come to obsessively check our phones is that mixed in with all of the junk mail and meeting requests is the odd, exceptional message, something so wonderful it makes our dopamine levels surge: A job offer. A long-lost friend. A love note.
That's what keeps us coming back for more.
Sure, our inboxes might be cleaner and lighter if we move all of our important business conversations to a centralized platform and rely on face-to-face interactions for more sensitive topics. But without all that, would we still be hooked?