We are addicted to non-stop communication, and it’s damaging our democracy and our daily lives.
We are shocked when e-mails are hacked and posted for the world to see, as they were during the most recent French and American presidential elections. But our panic and amazement reveals a deep misunderstanding of electronic communication.
Everything you send across the Internet has the potential to become public. If we accepted that reality, how would our lives and behavior change?
Our brains rebel against this idea because we’re accustomed to privacy, to small communities, and to the physical limits of ink scribbled on paper. Even the names of software harken back to a simpler time — e-mail, notepad, web page — and conjure a comforting but misleading image of a physical object that doesn’t exist. If the security of your communications is your top concern, you’re much better off mailing a handwritten note than typing a single keystroke on anything connected to Wifi.
Every word you send over the Internet travels thousands of miles, transmitted between countless computers with the potential to make an infinite number of copies within a fraction of a second, before it reaches its destination, where it can again be transmitted and replicated without your knowledge or control. It’s simply impossible to secure every node in that chain, especially when a typical individual is sending and receiving thousands of words in hundreds of e-mails each day.
We perceive e-mail as an intimate, private experience akin to a personal letter.
In fact, it’s more like a massive, worldwide bulletin board. This misunderstanding is compounded by the fact that we’re addicted to constant connection and non-stop information.
As secretary of state, Hillary Clinton went to great lengths to make sure she was always connected — and the fact that her decisions contributed to the failure of her subsequent presidential campaign is a sad example of seemingly beneficial technology becoming a dangerous and destructive dependency.
It’s absurd to believe that we need constant connection to do our jobs — and that includes most important ones. President Obama battled for possession of a BlackBerry; President Trump spends his mornings tweeting.
It is also preposterous to claim that e-mail is unsafe on one server but secure on another, when in reality no data is secure.
You can debate in the margins, but you can’t change the fundamental fact that any data worth stealing will probably be stolen sooner or later. For example, the government-operated e-mail systems for the White House and State Department were breached in 2014 and had to be partially shut down for days in hope of reestablishing security after troves of messages had been stolen. Financial and identity data is hijacked from the servers of major corporations on a daily basis. When will it stop being a surprise?
To be fair, the government uses closed networks, which are built without access to the global Internet, for its most sensitive communication. But even then, it’s a conceit to imagine this data is inaccessible, or to believe the security professionals employed by the government can universally outperform the legions of highly paid, ethically unencumbered hackers employed by private companies and foreign adversaries.
Moving from Gmail to a White House server will keep employees at Google from reading your mail, but to imagine it hides your messages from the prying eyes of Russian hackers is mostly wishful thinking.
The idea that any data is safe on any computer is a fantasy.
The illusion persists because we love the quick hit of dopamine that comes with every message sent and received. That dangerous chemistry makes our brains underestimate risks and overestimate rewards. Until we come to terms with our addiction to information and find a way to appropriately balance our use of devices that deliver non-stop stimulation, we’re setting ourselves up to be plagued by unpleasant digital surprises.