Saturday, September 20, 2008

Palin, her emails, her hacker: No secrets`

The theft of Sarah Palin's "private" emails from her Yahoo account this week flared into a potentially fascinating but short-lived story of the presidential campaign. Apparently, there is little within the emails that gives us new insight into the Republican vice presidential candidate.

What is far more interesting -- and instructive -- are the stories underneath this non-story. There are three:

  • Hacking with ease. It took virtually no technical expertise for the hacker to get into Palin's email account. The security question used to prevent unauthorized entry could easily be answered through a Google search or by just looking at a standard biography. Just about anyone with rudimentary knowledge of email systems could have done it. (See "Palin Email "Hack" Was Hardly a Hack at All" at Gizmodo.)

  • Secret government. Why was Sarah Palin using a private email account instead of the one provided for her by the state government of Alaska? She was doing so as a work-around to Alaska's Open Records Act. According to the Seattle Times, "Palin routinely uses a private Yahoo e-mail account to conduct state business. Others in the governor's office sometimes use personal e-mail accounts, too." To those of us who believe the public's business should be conducted in public, the attitude of the governor and her administration is troubling. But, given the permeable nature of "private" email accounts, this scheme comes up somewhat short of brilliant.

  • Tracking the hack. If Palin doesn't have any protection from intrusions, then neither does the hacker. Attention is being focused on a University of Tennessee student who is the son of a Democratic legislator. (UT is where I teach, but no, I don't know him.) Even though he made some efforts to conceal his identity, he was tracked through a number of clues he left about himself and information that appeared in his high school yearbook. (For more details, see the Knoxville News Sentinel's "Kernell mum on allegations son hacked into Palin’s e-mail."

The Big Lesson here: The web is no place to hide. What happens on the web doesn't stay on the web.

When we put information, thoughts, ideas, pictures or whatever on the web, we lose control of it. And sometimes it comes back to haunt us.

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