Technology & Science

Why do people still use email — or at least not secure it?

The stream of leaked emails in the U.S. election campaign makes you wonder why prominent people and organizations keep using email, or at the very least, why they haven't taken more security precautions.

U.S. election campaign leaks demonstrate security and privacy issues of this aging medium

Then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton checks her mobile phone on March 12, 2012 after speaking to the UN Security Council. In a September 2016 report on her use of an unauthorized private email system, the FBI concluded she had mishandled classified information but not in a way that warranted a criminal prosecution. (Richard Drew/Associated Press)

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.

In a recent op-ed for the New York Times, writer Farhad Manjoo asserts that "email is simply not up to the rigours of modern political and business life."
President Barack Obama and Florida Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz smile last week as they campaign in Miami. In July Wasserman Schultz resigned as Democratic Party chairwoman after the publication of leaked internal emails by WikiLeaks suggesting the Democratic National Committee favoured Hillary Clinton in the presidential primaries. (Alan Diaz/Associated Press)

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.

The sheer quantity of messages makes the technology overwhelming, while the variety of conversations lulls us into a false sense of security. When you're chit-chatting with friends in one message and talking about proprietary work issues in the next, it can be easy to take security precautions for granted.
Former CIA director David Petraeus, whose career was destroyed by an extramarital affair with his biographer, was sentenced in April 2015 to two years' probation and fined $100,000 for a deliberate leak: giving her classified material while she was working on the book. (Richard Drew/Associated Press)

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."

To cut down on digital clutter, tools like Slack, a centralized messaging system, offer a more modern approach to inter-office communication. In Slack, messages are more contained, more easily searchable and better archived or managed by a system administrator, reducing inter-office emails by as much as 48 per cent, according to their own research.
The U.S. State Department said in August that an email exchange reviewed by the FBI between Hillary Clinton and top aide Huma Abedin, pictured, did not indicate any improprieties. (Alex Brandon/Associated Press)

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?

About the Author

Ramona Pringle

Technology Columnist

Ramona Pringle is an associate professor in Faculty of Communication and Design and director of the Creative Innovation Studio at Ryerson University. She is a CBC contributor who writes and reports on the relationship between people and technology.