Not very long ago I was joking around with some friends, one of whom told me to expect that Gmail would soon be increasing their already generous limit of 15 GB of storage. His reason was that pretty much every politician and politico in America is emptying their accounts about now. It was a humorous observation, but he’s probably right. The DNC may have been on their own internal mail system, but once a person of Podesta’s standing had their Gmail account hacked it became obvious that nobody is safe. Why risk storing anything of a sensitive nature (personal or professional) if it’s just going to show up on the pages of the Washington Post next year?
Richard Cohen and I don’t agree on much, but his column at the Washington Post this week on the subject of public figures being too afraid to leave any sort of official footprints in the snow of history is one where we’re on the same page. Even leaving out the salacious or incriminating, we’re going to be losing a lot of history when everyone abandons electronic communications for fear of being outed.
The result of this new transparency is less transparency. Where once every high government official devoted part of every day to his or her private diary, now only a fool would do so. Joseph Lelyveld’s new book, “His Final Battle: The Last Months of Franklin Roosevelt,” details the end of FDR’s life, much of it in diary entries made by others. The president himself kept no diary, but just about everyone who had access to him did, and while some of them were willing to lie in public at the time about Roosevelt’s health — FDR was clearly failing — they were usually truthful in their diaries. They wrote of his cadaverous appearance, his lack of focus, his flagging energy — portraits they would never, out of either charity or political caution, have made at the time if they knew it could be leaked. They were compiling a historical record. They lied to the present, but not to the future.
Now, though, that record may come down to anodyne emails with smileys at the end. Nothing honest will be put down on what used to be paper.
Thinking about this for a while, why would any public official put anything down in digital writing? For that matter, why would any person with even the slightest amount of celebrity wish to leave any digital trail behind them? In some cases this might have produced some slightly more responsible behavior. After naughty pictures of hundreds of Hollywood ladies were stolen from their phones and published around the world, I’m guessing there was a mass deletion of photo records and a dearth of new nude pictures being sent to boyfriends.
But for other public figures, a change like this is going to deprive us of quite a bit of history. I imagine this started back when the Watergate tapes first came to light in the seventies. Do you think any presidents have been taping all of their office meetings since then? But since hackers have taught us unvarnished lessons about how the internet eventually ruins everything, why would anyone send or receive emails with anything but the most mundane housekeeping in them? If anything, I imagine we’ll be seeing (or not seeing, actually) public servants doing most of their communications by phone and mobile video from secure locations. Any documents which must, for some reason, be shared may go back largely to personally produced paper documents which are hand delivered and destroyed after being seen.
Is that more “responsible” behavior? No. It’s secretive and shuts the public out of the comings and goings of their elected officials. But Wikileaks didn’t create this problem. They simply forced it to evolve. These people were always secretive by nature and I’m sure well all knew (or at least suspected) that was the case. Now the secrecy will simply move to a new format.