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

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


David Gewirtz, Distinguished Lecturer at CBS Interactive, is an author, U.S. policy advisor, and computer scientist. He is featured in the History Channel special The President's Book of Secrets and is a member of the National Press Club.

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  • once talked to a guy who was an "retired"

    and everyone knows those guys are never retired, and he said that anything you put into computer is not a secret that instant therefore serious people never trust any info to computers
    • Hmm...

      Can someone translate this post?
      • Translated

        If the feds, who never sleep, happen to get their grimy paws on your hard drive, you ain't gonna be happy.

        Moral of the story: DON'T TRUST THE FEDS, ER, AND COMPUTERS.
  • More to the crux

    of why no emails, Big Sis (smarter than your average Eric Holder) is correctly following procedure to later avoid having some more than ample body part caught in a wringer. Hard to gather FOI material if there ain't no I.
  • no email no FOI

    I agree with the others. This is just a ploy to reduce her legal exposure.
    • Not just FOI

      But any accountability! Assuming she doesnt use snail mail.
      Richard Flude
    • Not just FOI

      But any accountability! Assuming she doesnt use snail mail.
      Richard Flude
  • Status Quo and Par for the Course

    A Homeland Security chief who knows nothing about E-mail and the Internet.
    A Treasury Secretary who forgot to pay his income taxes.
    A State Department Chief Counsel who believes that America should defer to the International Court of Justice, that all distinctions between American Constitutional law and international law should vanish, and that Sharia law should be applied to some disputes in U.S. courts.
    An Attorney General who joins with a foreign country to sue individual states over immigration laws.

    Despite Attorney General Eric Holder calling timely responses to Freedom of Infomation Act requests “an essential component of transparency”, 19 of 20 Cabinet-level agencies disobeyed the FOIA requiring the disclosure of public information. Only eight of the 57 federal agencies met a Bloomberg request for documents within the 20-day window required by the Act. This after President Obama ordered federal officials to “usher in a new era of open government” and “act promptly” to make information public.
    • ICJ...

      I've always had the impression that US administrations like to have the rest of the world subject to the ICJ - but speaking as a citizen of the rest of the world, if you want anyone to take you seriously when you say that, you can't follow it up by not being subject to it yourselves.

      I'd ask for a citation that a State Department counsel actually believes Sharia law should ever apply in the US. As it's not actually part of any relevant US legislation.
      • Sharia law in US

        The issue came up in the UK. I do not know how relevant this is to the US, but in the UK teh application of such 'law' would be treated as arbitration, not as the law of the land as passed by parliament.

        What that means is that both parties in a dispute agree in advance to accept the ruling of the tribunal. Furthermore, the ruling may not contravene national law. Taking an extreme example, a ruling could not impose severance of a limb for theft.

        This is no different from any other form of arbitration.
        • Actually

          ...there's nothing stopping people in the U.S. from using religious courts for arbitration now, as long as all parties accept the court's jurisdiction and no physical punishments are imposed; to that extent, religious courts are no different than any other arbitration service.
          John L. Ries
  • Too Far.

    OK, you went astep too far with the veggies comment. :-)
    • I was concerned

      But, you know, this is a family site...
      David Gewirtz
  • Red herring about the Luddite comment

    Not a Luddite just aware of the fact that email is not secure in any way shape or form. Perhaps Homeland Security knows something you do not? E mail is not secure encryption or not. The fact is TPTB in fact the powers that don't be as well don't want it protected or secure. Dems or Reps don't matter Chinese Russan Brits etc all religions all party affiliation all nations agree you deserve no privacy. All in the same boat, your boat your browsing your email you etc. So perhaps she does know something after all.
  • crooked politicians avoid e-mail because of judicial review

    Crooked politicians, even before Dick Cheney, refuse to document anything because it can be subpenaed.
  • CYA All The Way

    This is just another cog in the CYA wheel. Of course big sis doesn't want any kind of trail leading back to her with all the unlawful and unconstitutional actions taking place in this regime.
  • Maybe

    Well, Janet Napolitano could still be a Luddite (for all I know), but not because she doesn't use email. My respect for her has gone up a notch knowing this fact. Really, I agree with David. This issue is not really anything to be worked up over.

    It is hard to imagine anyone not having email access in today's society, though. You know, it wasn't all that long ago that email usage was the exception rather than the rule.
    • REally?

      I'm not admiring her contented and continued ignorance.

      It's one thing to not use email yourself. It's quite another to know nothing about technology and be proud of it - especially when you're responsible for the nation's security.
  • More likely just a crook

    And she doesn't want evidence that could get her indicted.
    • Or a deciever, like so many others in positions of power

      But leave the obvious out of it!