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Private Email Private Email Versus Business Email: Blurred Lines

We’ve all seen the picture. Hillary Clinton, wearing sunglasses, checks her PDA while on a government trip aboard a Boeing C-17 military plan. Little did we know at the time that the email she was checking wasn’t supported and protected by the State Department but was in fact a personal server located in her residence. Her use of a “homebrew” private email to conduct government business has been fuel for growing attacks on Clinton and her possible run for President in 2016.

But make no mistake – use of private email by political officials is an equal-opportunity partisan tripwire. On the other side of our national political divide, Jeb Bush has faced his own onslaught of scrutiny for having a private email server while he served as governor of Florida. And politicians of all political stripes are having similar trouble over email use.

In contrast to the politically motivated vilifications and exasperations, many are asking “what’s the big deal?” The average citizen has trouble connecting use of personal email with a tangible risk of harm or impact on national security. And let’s face it: The actions of those currently in the spotlight over email use are pretty representative of Americans in general. It’s not uncommon for a person to take a mix and match approach between private and business correspondence when it comes to emails. Recent surveys suggest a third or more of people use private email for business use. This is the moment we need to say enough is enough – for all of us.

It has been publicly confirmed that both the Obama and McCain campaigns were both hacked during the 2008 election campaign. Both campaigns were operating independently and were not protected by US government cyber security resources. And both were severely compromised by a state-sponsored attacker. There is no question that our rivals on the international stage will continue to look for and exploit our weak spots – there is no question that use of personal email by political leaders continues to be one of them.

Even in the high-profile cases grabbing today’s headlines, people aren’t suggesting criminal behavior or treasonous actions. Rather the issue is the blithe lack of awareness in our society as a whole about cyber security – especially when it exists among those entrusted with safeguarding the rest of us and representing our interests to the world at large. This applies to political and business leaders alike.

It is likely that all candidates for President will rethink their cyber security practices given recent events. But there is great complexity in maintaining an adequate defense against all manner of hackers, foreign and domestic. And there is a need for sophisticated encryption methods and system monitoring. Perhaps the government will ultimately step up and provide candidates with security in the cyber realm in addition to physical protection.

The majority of people won’t be running for political office anytime soon, but it is likely that they still share the same blurred lines between private and business email as the politicians currently taking so much heat. When you add in the fact that businesses have moved into the realm of social media considered by many to be solely for private use, the picture gets fuzzier. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and other social media platforms are all used as key marketing tools by corporations. As companies encourage customers to contribute stories, pictures, and tweets to foster a bond with existing customers and reach new ones, defining the line between private and business becomes even more elusive.

So maybe we can hold off a bit on viewing cyber security through the headline grabbing, tabloid fodder media lens that has been focused upon it. Rather we can recognize that it is time for government and business alike to rethink and restructure their approach to cyber security within the ever expanding role that electronic communications and social media have taken in our lives.