In her 2014 memoir, former secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton described the lengths to which State Department officials must go to protect sensitive communications. (Yuri Gripas/Reuters)

“I myself am not the most tech-savvy person,” Hillary Clinton wrote in “Hard Choices,” her 2014 memoir of her years as secretary of state. “But I understood that new technologies would reshape how we practiced diplomacy and development.”

Clinton is now under fire for using her personal e-mail account nearly exclusively in the course of her official duties as secretary of state, as first reported by the New York Times. In the memoir, she includes a chapter titled “21st-Century Statecraft: Digital Diplomacy in a Networked World,” emphasizing how communications technology can help activists avoid persecution from repressive regimes and spur economic growth in developing nations. However, she also warns of the security risks of electronic communications, the lengths to which State Department communications were a target of increasingly sophisticated cyberattacks, and how she worked under “strict security precautions” to protect official information:

We’d also seen the darker side of the digital revolution. The same qualities that made the internet a force for unprecedented progress — in its openness, its leveling effect, its reach and speed — also enabled wrongdoing on an unprecedented scale. It’s well known that the internet is a source for nearly as much misinformation as information, but that’s just the beginning. Terrorists and extremist groups use the internet to incite hate, recruit members, and plot and carry out attacks. Human traffickers lure new victims into modern-day slavery. Child pornographers exploit children. Hackers break into financial institutions, retailers, cell phone networks, and personal email accounts. Criminal gangs as well as nations are building offensive cyber warfare and industrial espionage capabilities. Critical infrastructure like power grids and air traffic control systems are increasingly vulnerable to cyber attack.

Like other sensitive government agencies, the State Department was frequently the target of cyber attacks. Department officials had to fend off intrusions in their email and increasingly sophisticated phishing attempts. When we first arrived at State, these attempts were similar to the fraudulent emails many Americans experience at home on their personal computers. Just as the broken English of the infamous Nigerian bank scam tips off most users, the often sloppy early attempts to penetrate our secure systems were easy to spot. But by 2012, the sophistication and fluency had advanced considerably, with attackers impersonating State Department officials in an attempt to dupe their colleagues into opening legitimate-looking attachments.

When we traveled to sensitive places like Russia, we often received warnings from Department security officials to leave our BlackBerrys, laptops — anything that communicated with the outside world — on the plane, with their batteries removed to prevent foreign intelligence services from compromising them. Even in friendly settings we conducted business under strict security precautions, taking care where and how we read secret material and used our technology. One means of protecting material was to read it inside an opaque tent in a hotel room. In less well-equipped settings we were told to improvise by reading sensitive material with a blanket over our head. I felt like I was ten years old again, reading covertly by flashlight under the covers after bedtime. On more than one occasion I was cautioned not to speak freely in my own hotel room. And it wasn’t just U.S. government agencies and officials who were targets. American companies were also in the crosshairs. I fielded calls from frustrated CEOs complaining about aggressive theft of intellectual property and trade secrets, even breaches of their home computers. To better focus our efforts against this increasingly serious threat, I appointed the Department’s first Coordinator for Cyber Issues in February 2011.

— Hillary Rodham Clinton, “Hard Choices” (chapter 24)

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