Why an e-mail hack feels so personal

A few days later, my computer asked if I was sure I wanted to open the document I had just downloaded from the Internet. I hadn’t downloaded anything. “No,” I clicked. And the next morning, a logoff notice materialized in front of my email: “We’ve detected suspicious activity on your Google account.”

I had no idea what that might mean, and so, with all the paranoia of the technological know-nothing, I assumed the worst: My computer had a virus, hackers had broken into my email, and I was unintentionally subsidizing a drug empire in Colombia. Like a Job of the electronic age, I wondered why such afflictions had rained down upon me—so many, and all at once.

I raced to the Apple Store, but the attending “Genius” was unimpressed. “Just looks like somebody got into your Google account,” he said, leaning nonchalantly against the counter. “Super common.” Most hackers didn’t do anything too bad, he added. Only the most nefarious would, for instance, outright delete an email account.

On the subway ride home—zipping open my bag every now and again, just to make sure my laptop was still there—I pondered the intensity of my disquiet. I had seen computers freeze and fail, yet I had always taken for granted the permanence of my email account. Even when computers break, email survives: If computers are like bodies, email is the soul.