If the head of Homeland Security refuses to use email, is she a Luddite?

Summary:On Friday, U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano, the former governor of Arizona, admitted she never, ever uses email. Should we be shocked?

Oh, my, but the blogosphere was a-poppin' on Friday. At a Washington, DC cybersecurity summit, U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano, the former governor of Arizona, admitted she never, ever uses email.

My former colleagues at CNN blasted, "The Luddite atop US cybersecurity". TechDirt -- one of my favorite watchdog sites -- claimed she "doesn't know much (if anything) about the internet." There were other exclamations of shock and disbelief throughout the news cycle.

I also got a call from a national news organization (not CBS), who wanted to know if the fact that Napolitano doesn't use email means that she admits that email is unsafe -- and, by extension, that we should be worried about email safety in America.

To a measurable degree, this is a non-story. First, I'll tell you about one of my most favored bucket list items. Put simply, I dream of the day I never, ever have to use email again. Fess up. There are a lot of you who'd be thrilled if you never had to face the inbox and all the whining, complaining, and beseeching messages that lie therein.

Secondly, Napolitano's preference does not indicate an administration preference. I got my start back at CNN writing about President Obama's refusal to give up his BlackBerry in his first week in office. Obama uses a secured email device and stays in touch constantly. By contrast, George W. Bush gave up his email access for his entire two terms. Given how problematic Bush administration email was (yeah, I wrote the book on it), it was a smart decision on the part of the former President.

The fact is, executives at her level have options when it comes to personal communications. Put simply, they have people for that. Being head of DHS is a very demanding job, and spending 20 minutes to 2 hours a day being a slave to the inbox is not the best use of time.

Next, there are security issues. Internal U.S. government email security is generally rather good, but as I discussed at length in my book, the 1939 Hatch Act prevents government officials from using public facilities for political use. This has been interpreted in our modern world to mean that government-secured communications can't be used for political emailing -- and that means that the open Internet winds up being used, even when it's ill-advised.

Frankly, I probably wouldn't make the choice Napolitano made, were I in her gig. The fact is, I'm an email junkie. I find myself checking my email constantly, and I go through some sort of freaky withdrawal symptoms if I'm away from a high speed Internet connection for more than an hour.

I disagree with TechDirt, though, when they say that not using email disqualifies her from being in charge of America's cybersecurity. Frankly, not having an engineering or technical background is what disqualifies her from that job. But she's not the person in charge of America's cybersecurity, any more than President Obama is. There are people who report to her (as well as report to various branches of the military) who have that role.

Napolitano is a politician and a bureaucrat. Email skills are not a job requirement.

Finally, there's the question of whether email is safe. I've answered this about a billion times: no, it is not safe. Email on the Internet is not secure, it's filled with risks, and you need to proceed with caution if you use it.

While we're on the topic, avoid opening attachments, update your applications and operating systems, and eat your veggies.

Topics: Government, Government : US, Security

About

In addition to hosting the ZDNet Government and ZDNet DIY-IT blogs, CBS Interactive's Distinguished Lecturer David Gewirtz is an author, U.S. policy advisor and computer scientist. He is featured in The History Channel special The President's Book of Secrets, is one of America's foremost cyber-security experts, and is a top expert on savi... Full Bio

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