The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

E-mail is incredibly insecure. Here’s why the president should still use it.

President Obama runs from Marine One back into the White House after forgetting his Blackberry phone while departing for a domestic trip November 21, 2014 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Russian hackers swept up some of President Obama's e-mails in a breach of unclassified systems at the White House last year, the New York Times reports. The attackers don't seem to have penetrated the servers supporting his BlackBerry. But they did get to the e-mail archives of some White House staffers, the paper said -- reaching messages to and from the commander-in-chief that could contain sensitive information including policy debates and scheduling information.

The breach wasn't some standalone incident: The State Department struggled for months to kick hackers off its unclassified systems -- an attack CNN linked to the White House breach. Back in 2008, Chinese hackers were said to have breached the Obama and McCain presidential campaigns. And most security experts agree that that nature of cyberattacks make some breaches almost inevitable: A dedicated assailant can attack over and over again, but only needs to succeed once to breach a target.

So given the apparent security risks of e-mail, should the president be using it?

This debate is actually really new. President Obama's seemingly regular use of e-mail is a dramatic shift from his predecessors. The exact number of e-mails Bill Clinton sent as president is a matter of debate, but thought to be just a handful -- and President George W. Bush avoided e-mail altogether. So have some other high ranking national security figures, like one-time Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano.

But there are some flaws with the argument that keeping the president off e-mail altogether will make communications more secure. First is that even in this recent set of breaches, the most secure of government digital messaging systems appears to have remained intact. At least publicly, agencies targeted by the recent wave of attacks have said that only their unclassified systems were compromised: Classified digital messages are largely kept in an entirely separate system, which officials have said remained safe.

Plus, even if the president isn't sending or receiving his own e-mails, unless the entire White House were to switch to typewriters like the Russian intelligence service reportedly did after the revelations about the National Security Agency's digital spying powers in recent years, the people around him will still be his proxies -- creating a digital record of what's going on inside the administration.

And that digital record is actually the most compelling reason the president should use e-mail.

"E-mail is a huge boon for accountability because it's so easy to leave a trace -- it gets saved in the inboxes of people who receive messages and bounced around on servers," said John Wonderlich, policy director at the Sunlight Foundation.

But the government's digital archiving system is a work in progress and has been for years, Wonderlich said. Current presidential candidate Hillary Clinton came under fire earlier this year when it was revealed she used a personal e-mail account and server for her digital correspondence while secretary of state, with her team choosing which e-mails should be retained after the fact. And the Bush White House had its own private e-mail scandal. 

Often, these sorts of tactics appear to be politically motivated, Wonderlich said -- and it's common for high-ranking officials to move potentially sensitive conversations from a written record to a face-to-face meeting or telephone call.

But preserving those discussion is not just about immediate oversight -- it's about history, he said: Having e-mails that show how the president's positions developed over time will help provide perspective insight into how the country worked decades and potentially centuries down the line.

Unfortunately, there's already evidence one president's aversion to e-mail was at least partially driven by an attempt not to leave that much of a trail.

In a 2013 C-SPAN interview President Bush cited a fear of "congressional intrusion" as a reason he avoided e-mail. He even wistfully addressed the loss that choice caused the public: "A lot of history’s lost when presidents are nervous about their personal papers being subpoenaed."