In the final days of a brutally contentious presidential election, the steady drip of email caches from Hillary Clinton and her associates should not be all that surprising or even controversial. Indeed, this proliferation of emails is part and parcel of how the internet works and points toward a broader problem with the way Washington handles classified information. Unfortunately, the federal government has not caught up with the realities of our information age.
Part of that reality is that the internet loves to copy, as futurist Kevin Kelly has written in his book, Understanding the 12 Technological Forces That Will Shape Our Future:
At its most foundational level, it copies every action, every character, every thought we make while we ride upon it. In order to send a message from one corner of the internet to another, the protocols of communication demand that the whole message be copied along the way several times. IT companies make a lot of money selling equipment that facilitates this ceaseless copying. Every bit of data ever produced on any computer is copied somewhere. The digital economy is thus run on a river of copies. Unlike the mass-produced reproductions of the machine age, these copies are not just cheap, they are free.
They are not just free, but sneaky. More than once, I’ve discovered files on my own computer that I did not intend to put there.
Replicate this interaction with the world’s largest copying machine throughout the roughly 2.8 million federal civil servants, and 2 million members of the armed forces and you get a potentially infinite stream of emails and documents.
What’s troubling about the obsession with Clinton’s emails is that it draws resources away from nefarious copying and information theft that is much more harmful to America’s national security. For instance, the email system at the Department of State has been the target of consistent hacking attempts over the years. During the four years form 2011-2015, the U.S. Department of Energy – which oversees sensitive programs ranging from the National Labs system to America’s nuclear arsenal and where I served as a special advisor for policy and international affairs from 2012-2014 – was hacked 150 times. In one of those hacks, information including the names, bank accounts, addresses and social security numbers of 104,000 employees (including my own) were copied – some would say stolen.
In an attack on the Office of Personnel Management last year, hackers copied and stole not only the names and personal information of 21.5 million individuals (most likely including my own) who held clearances or had had been interviewed for them, but the actual contents of those security clearance interviews. These interviews include information on drug habits, sexual partners and proclivities, issues with alcohol, family relations, finances and foreign acquaintances.
But at this point there appears to be no evidence that Clinton’s campaign head, Huma Abedin’s, trove of emails is the result of anything untoward.
This is just one reason FBI director James Comey has come under such harsh criticism. It’s very possible that Abedin didn’t even realize that these emails were on the computer. That’s because a stash of digital documents isn’t the same as a stash of physical documents: in the case of the digital documents, no one necessarily had to put them there. They could have been automatically downloaded from an email account or icloud.
Taken in that context, the hyperventilation about the possibility that Clinton’s emails might contain hidden classified material is not only speculation, but it also demonstrates a profound ignorance of how the digital age works.
The most obvious explanation for the hundreds of thousands of emails discovered on the Abedin-Weiner family computer comes down to the internet’s voracious appetite for copying. There are real issues at stake in this election ranging from tax policy, to climate change, to religious freedom, to America’s role in the greater world. Puzzling through every copied email on the internet related to Clinton is not only a waste of resources, it’s probably impossible — there will always be more copies.
Levi Tillemann is a managing partner at Valence Strategic LLC and a fellow at the New America Foundation. He is also author of the book, The Great Race: The Global Quest For The Car Of The Future.