This story has been updated.
The scandal over hacked emails at the Democratic National Committee seems to highlight a truth of the modern age: No matter how many politicians, celebrities or military leaders get embarrassed in these cases, people can’t seem to change their email habits.
It’s not for lack of concern. A report published by the Pew Research Center last year found just 29 percent of Americans were confident that their email providers would be able to keep their information safe.
And with good reason. The revelation that DNC officials apparently favored Hillary Clinton over Sen. Bernie Sanders comes on the heels of a string of high-profile incidents in which hackers have infiltrated even supposedly secure servers to unearth trade secrets, military plans and illicit affairs.
"People have become more anxious over time. There's this palpable sense when you do surveys or focus groups that people feel they've lost control of their information," said Lee Rainie, the director of Pew Research’s Internet and American Life Project.
In the private sector, companies have scrambled to find an effective response. Several contacted for this story declined to discuss efforts to secure their email for fear of handing hackers further ideas. The basic step companies could take to keep their emails from hackers’ prying eyes is encryption -- but it’s not always an easy sell.
"Businesses kind of know they should be encrypting email and sometimes they take steps towards that. But it can become an inconvenience, especially when you add mobile devices into the mix,” said Richard Bejtlich, chief security strategist at cybersecurity firm FireEye. “Some businesses decide it's just not worth it."
Top executives are often quicker to adopt encrypted messaging apps such as iMessage or Signal, said Josh Feinblum, vice president of information security at cybersecurity company Rapid7. But the broader population of employees tends to be slower to adopt better email practices. It’s “hard to culturally drive changes in behavior there,” Feinblum said.
After the Edward Snowden leaks, some organizations now tell their employees that they actively seek out “insider threats” and monitor their networks with unprecedented scrutiny. Defense contractors such as Raytheon and Lockheed Martin sell software that can keep track of employees’ online habits, as well as email. The programs are designed to catch leakers in the act and even predict who might go rogue.
Daniel Hill, a crisis communications consultant with business and celebrity clients, said he now warns that even voicemails that are transcribed and sent by email "now becomes admissible" in court. "Emailing is just a dangerous thing," he said, even if you're copied on an email and never participate in the conversation.
Hill said he counsels clients to spend more time meeting people in person. “We’re big on personal contact," he said.
But even though they know the potential perils, people keep pressing send emails in haste.
One reason is often anger and the instant gratification of acting on it in a digital medium that doesn’t always allow for sober thought and reflection, said Brad Bushman, a communications and psychology professor at Ohio State University.
"Angry people behave very impulsively," he explained. "Anger sort of narrows your attention span and makes you focus on the here and now -- plus it feels good. That's another problem about venting. People love to do it."
Another reason is the basic need for validation and the innate human desire to kvetch. “When someone is supportive of our feelings, it’s validating and can help you move on,” said Imran Riaz, a D.C. psychologist who specializes in impulse control.
And then there’s good old-fashioned denial: "Even though you're aware of the fact that these things can get out, sometimes you ignore the fact that it could happen to you," said Ryan Martin, the chair of the Psychology Department at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay.
All of those factors canteam up and crescendo into a big ball of regret. And everyone has a tale of their own.
“Let me tell you a story,” Lee Dougherty said.
He’s an attorney, who specializes in government contracts, and when he’s in the middle of a dispute, he often filed a Freedom of Information Act request for emails because he knows that the mix of anger, the need to kvetch and the dark powers of denial can lead to victory in the courtroom.
“They can’t resist,” he said, which means he “may very well get the smoking gun.”
But this story isn’t about a case. It’s about a former colleague. An attorney, who should have known better. Their boss was a bit of a control freak, who obsessively read everyone’s work emails. Clients would write Dougherty without copying the boss and still the boss would respond, “Lee, did you follow up with this person?”
And yet his colleague still went ahead and insulted the boss in an email, Dougherty said, calling him the "Eye of Sauron," the all-seeing villain from the “Lord of the Rings.”
“So here you have an intelligent attorney" who knows her communications are being monitored, Dougherty said. “And yet she’s still talking about him.”