Somewhere within the high fence surrounding the Clintons' house at the end of a cul-de-sac in Chappaqua, N.Y., is (or was, or may have been) a little box that is now at the center of a lot of controversy. According to the Associated Press, the private e-mail system that Hillary Clinton used as secretary of state (apparently in opposition to administration policy) was "traced back" to an "Internet service" registered to that address. The phrasing of that is awkward, but here's the gist: Clinton's clintonmail.com e-mail account was operating out of a server in her house.
For the average person, that seems ... difficult. Complex. The idea of running your own little Gmail in a closet probably doesn't appeal. But it's really not that complicated, particularly if you have the resources at your disposal of an incoming secretary of state / former first lady. We spoke by phone with Peter Fidler, a 25-year veteran of setting up e-mail systems for small businesses at WCA Technologies in New York. He walked us through what you need if you, too, want to run your own e-mail system.
First: You need an Internet connection, including what's called a static IP address. (The IP stands for "Internet protocol.") Your IP address (here's yours!) is sort of like your computer's Internet street address. Occasionally, Internet service providers give you a dynamic IP address, meaning that it changes every so often. For an e-mail server, you need a static IP address, because you need to tell other servers where your e-mails should go. (A dynamic IP address is like someone couch-surfing; a static IP address is like someone renting an apartment. In the former case, getting letters in the mail is trickier.)
You also need power, of course, and you need the actual server. Here is a secret the Fat Cats in Silicon Valley don't want you to know: A server is just a computer. It runs software designed to support certain systems, and contains hardware components that aren't in your laptop (more, bigger hard drives, for example), but it's just a computer. Fidler also would install a firewall, a piece of hardware that's specifically designed to filter incoming network requests.
Once all of this hardware is in place, you need to set up the software end. The domain -- in this case, clintonemail.com -- needs to have an MX record ("mail exchange" record) assigned, pointing to the static IP address. That record tells the other servers where to send e-mails ending in "@clintonemail.com." You need to install some sort of mail system on the server (Jonathan Mayer, a fellow at Stanford University, believes the server itself is and/or was running Windows Server 2008; Clinton's use of a BlackBerry suggests that the e-mail system could be BlackBerry Enterprise Server). And you need to set up the mail clients -- that is, your e-mail program or phone mail system.
Those are the basics. But a secretary of state might want a little more.
Physical security of the server isn't a big problem, since the house is protected by the Secret Service. If power goes down briefly, servers can be backed up with battery systems, but since the volume of e-mail was almost certainly low, this probably wouldn't be a huge problem. At some point, Clinton's IT people (we assume she wasn't doing this herself) apparently started backing up the system with Google Mail. The real questions then are: the security of the e-mails and compliance with archiving rules.
There's one advantage to "clintonemail.com," versus the e-mail system of the State Department: It's perhaps not where hackers are going to be looking for Clinton's e-mails. (Clay Johnson, a technologist who worked in the administration, made this point on Tuesday.) If your goal is what is (often derisively) known as "security through obscurity" -- feeling safe because you're out of the public eye -- Fidler is a bit skeptical. "Having a domain name 'clintonemail.com' is a little obvious," he points out.
"Let me rephrase your question," Cris Thomas, a strategist at Tenable Network Security said when I asked him how to make e-mail as secure as possible. "As secure as possible means you can't use it. You want it to be as secure as the information you plan to transmit. An acceptable level of risk." The most basic level of security for e-mail is the sort of things you'd think of: spam filter, anti-virus, etc. You'd also need to monitor the network and the traffic hitting the firewall -- to ensure security, you need to keep an eye on the network as regularly as those Secret Service agents were monitoring the perimeter of the house.
The e-mails themselves need to be protected, too. To go back to the mail-coming-to-your-house example, e-mails are postcards, easily readable. To keep spies from reading your e-mail, it needs to be encrypted. Thomas described two ways of doing so: PGP and SSL certificates. (Bear with us! This is easier than it seems.)
PGP is trickier. It requires setting up a public and a private "key," strings of characters that are used to encrypt an e-mail between a sender and a recipient. Public keys are just that; the aforementioned Jonathan Mayer includes his in his Twitter bio. That's used to encrypt the message, which can only be unencrypted with the user's private key. It's an elegant system, but isn't well integrated into commonly used e-mail systems. There's no evidence that Clinton use PGP encryption.
Then there's SSL, secure socket layering. Every web page you go to that starts with https is using an SSL certificate to encrypt communications. It's easier to use and can integrate with common e-mail tools. Most large companies, Thomas said, use SSL certificates to encrypt their e-mail messages.
But clintonemail.com currently doesn't, according to a test run by Mayer. ("Cert OK" refers to the presence of a valid SSL certificate.) Nor does the State Department.
(Of course, that doesn't tell us much about how her server was configured when Clinton was still secretary.)
The other question was archives. Fidler notes that "journaling" systems exist for e-mail systems that allow for the backup of e-mail messages. It can be set to save particular messages even once deleted by the user, which would be useful for archiving with the government, as users are expected to do in some circumstances. Again, we don't know the setup on her home machine, but it seems to be the case that Clinton didn't provide regular back-ups of her e-mails to the National Archives.
So. Was Clinton's e-mail system more secure than the State Department's? It's hard to say, without knowing her setup. But it seems that it was perhaps not necessarily much less secure. Was it complying with archiving and Freedom of Information Act requests as necessary? Again, without details, it's hard to say for certain, but it appears not.
Should you set up an e-mail server in your closet, now that you sort of know how? If you do, try to avoid using YOURLASTNAMEmail.com as the domain for it. Rookie mistake.