The dumbest thing about the Goldstone email to Trump Jr.

(Note: first published here on DailyKos. Minor edits were made.)

So Donald J. Trump Jr. released the email that publicist Rob Goldstone sent him last year yesterday, along with his reply. Any lawyers among my readers were probably thinking, “What a stupid thing to do!” Trump Jr. probably figured that someone else would release it shortly so maybe there was some benefit of being the first to do so. It sure took everyone by surprise, including possibly his newly hired lawyer. Anyhow, it sure looks dumb. I was dumbstruck by the deed and Trump Sr. is reportedly furious.

Keystone Kops
Keystone Kops

I’m not a lawyer. I’m in Information Technology. And to me the stupidest thing of all was that Rob Goldstone used email to reach Trump Jr. Email! What the hell was he thinking? He compounded his error by giving the email the title (and I swear I’m not making this up):

Russia – Clinton – private and confidential

If you know much about email, you know that a lot of the world’s email goes across the Internet unencrypted, at least between certain points in the network between mail servers. The major email providers have upped the ante, fortunately. GMail encrypts end to end, but if some part of the email was sent through an unencrypted network it lets you know (at least in the web version) with a little unlocked “padlock” icon.

Using email was an amazingly stupid thing to do. I doubt Goldstone was being directed by the Russians to contact the Trump campaign on such a sensitive matter this way, but who knows? In any event if you are going to send a sensitive email you don’t fill the subject line with such lurid keywords.

The Internet leaves traces, and email in particular leaves traces. Emails usually collect in the outgoing email servers, and in places in between emails are often archived. One of those places might have been a NSA computer room. If the NSA were sniffing for information like this, well, they hardly had to do much work. Trump Jr.’s email address was there, it came from a known friend of the Trumps, and it came with a subject line that would automatically flag it. Perhaps the email was already known to the FBI as it got flagged by the NSA but was classified because of the sources and methods involved.

Trump Jr.’s response was classic too. Anyone with half a brain would have raised a red flag, probably reported it internally and to the FBI as well, not replied to it. Obviously there’s a lot of tone deafness in the Trump campaign, administration and family and a feeling they are somehow exempt from the rules.

I don’t do subterfuge, but if given a task like this instead of sending an email I’d be picking up the phone. I might allude to some information Trump Jr. would find very interesting, but it had to be shared in person and, oh, bring Jared and Paul. I’d suggest meeting for lunch in a quiet cubby at a local Ruth’s Chris.

In any event, it gives the whole incident a Keystone Kops surreal feel. It’s beyond amateur. It’s embarrassing. Even Putin gets slimed here. Is this the best he and his FSB can do? I expected they were way less inept than they apparently are.

Hillary’s emails: what the critics are missing

The current kerfuffle over Hillary Clinton’s use of a private Blackberry and private email server for her official business while she was Secretary of State is mostly about making a mountain out of a molehill. Nonetheless the molehill makes for a pretty interesting discussion and analysis. I have some thoughts about this coming from my time as a civil servant as well as some technical perspectives from my career in information technology that I haven’t heard in the media. Hence I’m taking some time to blog about it.

There are many dimensions to the issue. You can look at it from either dimension and feel completely justified that your side is right. Let me advocate for both of them and you tell me which is right.

First, I’ll take the critical perspective. Records should be kept of official government business. The Secretary of State does a lot of official business and it impacts national and international policy. Moreover, the email threads of these historical events may provide useful lessons for the future. The Secretary of State is essentially a civil servant. She works for the taxpayers. So her email should be archived, not necessarily for instant critique, but for history and for congressional and criminal inquiries when they are needed.

However, she was not just anyone. She was the Secretary of State. I can think of few positions in the government, including the Director of the CIA, that are more sensitive. If I were trying to have a confidential back channel communication with the Prime Minister of Israel, would I really want him to communicate with me through, even if the email were highly encrypted? Or using any email address? Would any leader outside our country want anything less than innocuous content to go through such a system? There is always the telephone, of course, and the Blackberry includes a telephone. However, a telephone is synchronous. It’s a relatively inefficient way to work. It’s much better to reply with thought and nuance when you have the opportunity to do so, i.e. use email.

The reality is that the Secretary of State (and most high level government executives) has multiple channels of communications to do their business. Email is an important tool. Staff communications happens at another level and is also vital. In general, all sorts of lower level communications have likely happened before the Secretary picks up the phone or sends an email. If there are times when a confidential email is the best choice for the Secretary, an off the record email system makes a lot of pragmatic and business sense. It’s hard for me to think of myself as Secretary of State but if I was, it was lawful and I had the money I’d probably have done mostly what Clinton did, except I’d have a separate email for strictly personal use. A private email address though was pragmatic and necessary. We should trust implicitly anyone we pick for Secretary of State. If we didn’t trust her, the Senate should not have confirmed her.

Using the same email account for both personal and public use even though it offers convenience is stupid. Personal systems are likely to be less secure as government systems, although government email systems are hardly perfectly secure. One could make the business case that overall her public emails would have been more secure being hidden on a private server inside the government technical enclave. Ideally she would use a hidden government-managed email server that was patched and highly secured.

However, those who think that she should have done all of her email using a email address clearly don’t have much of an understanding of how impractical this is. If this was her only government email address, it would be inundated with thousands of emails every day, even after the spam filter removed the obvious garbage. She would depend on staff to sift through it and flag the ones that she would read. Staff are not perfect though and might potentially not flag the important ones. In addition, there are times when you really don’t want staff reading certain emails but you need to communicate asynchronously. So you need a channel for that. And the open nature of email means anyone can send email to anyone. In short, this approach is not the least bit practical for someone at her position. She needed an email system that only let in those that she needed to let in, and this could not be done through the technology of the time.

What she did was not unlawful at the time, but certainly gave out a bad odor. It feeds into conspiracy theories that the Clintons always attract. It suggests a need for rigorous control and confidentiality; something I argue is not unreasonable for someone in her position. Mostly though I think the problem here is that the technology did not exist that allowed her to do her work pragmatically. It still doesn’t exist. Email is not quite the right medium for what she needed, but it was a tool everyone had. A private email address and mail server was a pragmatic solution to a difficult problem.

It may well be that Hillary Clinton is as paranoid as Republicans believe she is, and that all their theories about her are true. If so she has plenty of company among Republicans. I strongly suspect that she is guilty of being pragmatic and efficient, and using these somewhat unorthodox means allowed her to be the highly productive Secretary of State that most historians agree that she was. And given the unique sensitivity and nature of her work, I think the ends largely justified the means here. I also believe that if there were a technical solution available that would have met her requirements, she would have used it.

The synergy of RSS to Email

Four and a half years ago, I wrote about this new cool technology called RSS. Actually, RSS (Really Simple Syndication) was hardly new in December 2003. It was introduced by Netscape in 1999 as “RDF Site Summary”. This original version is now quaintly referred to as RSS 0.91.

The problem in 2003 was that RSS had not caught on. Who really wants to manually check the same web sites periodically for new content when a solution like RSS was available? It took a couple trillion web clicks but eventually users realized this was stupid and inefficient. Instead, web savvy people like me were noisily petitioning content providers to create RSS feeds. Eventually web publishers took notice. They realized the cost of implementation was relatively small, the underlying XML dirt simple to generate and that it could expand their market for minimal cost. Now, it is hard to find any web content provider without news feeds. This blog, for example, is accessible in two RSS formats as well as the Atom 1.0 syndication format. According to Feedburner, approximately thirty of you access my blog via my RSS feed. Thanks for subscribing, by the way.

So RSS has caught on to the point where it is widely available, but it is still not as widely used as it should be. Only about 10% of us web surfers regularly fetch web content through news feeds. I can only speculate on why this is so. I know I often prefer the rich content available on a web site to the relatively dry text that comes through with RSS. Both Internet Explorer and Firefox let you subscribe to a site’s news feed with a couple clicks, providing the site adds appropriate tags to its HTML.

Syndication formats like RSS and Atom thus serve a different purpose than a browser. We visit web sites for the relative ease of finding the depth of information at a site. We subscribe to news feeds because we want its regular content on a small range of specialized topics. Those of us who are religious about reading content via a newsreader know that it is very efficient at aggregating feeds for us. Yet it lacks the breadth of information that is available on the web site. A newsreader does not facilitate curiosity the way a browser does.

Many of us would probably like to subscribe to hundreds of news sources but really do not have time to read all of them, even with the efficiency built into a newsreader. For example, there may be a site that you only want to read quarterly. In addition, these sites may have pertinent information, but much of it may be irrelevant to our needs.

The problems with email are well known. Given the overwhelming amount of spam, it is hard to legitimate email to make it to your inbox. There is never any assurance that you have received all email sent to you. More email than you think gets lost, but much of it probably ends up in spam folders because spam filters generate too many false positives. As dreadful as missing an important email is to us, many of us fear the alternative even more: having to sift through the dozens or hundreds of spam emails we would get daily if we turned off our spam filters.

I have been wondering if RSS might be an effective solution to broadcasting certain kinds of information. Generally you do not have to worry about an RSS feed containing spam, since you typically verify that the site is legitimate by visiting the site. Once you know it is legitimate, you then can add its RSS feed. However, as I noted, unless you are meticulous about using your newsreader on a daily basis, it is easy to lose these timely notifications.

For those feeds where I need certain information, but only sporadically, it would be nice to get an email with the feed content when the feed changes, or when certain keywords appear in the feed. Moreover, when I no longer need to receive a feed from a particular source, it would be nice to have a fast way of unsubscribing from the feed.

As usual, industry is way ahead of me. A simple Google search eventually led me to the RSSReaderLive site, which I have been testing out. You could also choose one of the many other alternatives out there. Among them are RSSFWD, SendMeRSS, and FeedBlitz. FeedBurner also has a notification service. Using RSSReaderLive, the only thing I had to remember is to program my spam filter to let all emails from it go into my inbox automatically. I just have to hope that the email will not end up dropped in some digital bit bucket on its way to my inbox.

As you might expect these services are not necessarily free. You generally have to either pay a small fee for the service or deal with ads in the email. I hope that email clients will get smarter and start polling RSS feeds for you automatically, and include feed items as emails in your inbox. For those who like to diddle with their PCs, there are programs like rss2email that you can install that will act as an RSS to email proxy for you.

I like it when a confluence of standard web technologies (email, the web and newsfeeds) can be leveraged together to solve a problem like this, minor though it may be. It neatly solves the timely broadcast notification dilemma in a way that works for both content providers and consumers.

Is the U.S. Post Office obsolete?

Recently I wondered if cash was becoming obsolete. After reading this story in the Washington Post, I get the feeling that America’s oldest public institution, the U.S. Post Office, is nearing obsolescence too.

The milkman became obsolete in the middle of the 20th century. Analog TVs will become collector’s items after February 19, 2009 and most will quickly end up in landfills. The incandescent light bulb is on a ten-year death march, thanks to recent energy legislation signed into law. Why should the U.S. Post Office not see the handwriting on the wall?

There is little doubt about it: the U.S. Post Office survives largely due to the largess of bulk mailers. They just love inundating our mailboxes with junk. If you are like me, virtually all of it goes into the trash. Now consumers want the same freedom from junk mail that they have from telephone solicitors. They are pressing the Post Office and Congress to let this new freedom ring. Since it sounds good for the environment and I hate bulk mail, I know I would be among the first to sign up. Such an action though would untie the Post Office from its financial moorings. It is bad enough for the Post Office that first class mail is drying up. I pay about half of my bills online and I expect that I am one of the technology laggards. Most of my other creditors just have not graduated to the 21st century. These include our lawn service and a number of physicians. I expect they will catch up soon. They will find it is much less expensive to collect money online and wonder why they did not do it years ago.

The personal letter is virtually obsolete. Once upon a time, my siblings and I sent around a chain letter. Since I have many siblings, it took about two months for a new batch of letters to reach you. About ten years ago, at my insistence, we gave it up. What was the point when we all had email addresses? A bimonthly bundle of letters at least had the virtue of making me sit down and write my siblings regularly. Today, we shoot out emails to each other all the time. Yet I can go three or four months before I trade much in the way of actual news. I still have one technologically phobic sister, but her husband does email so he makes sure she gets copies (as in “printouts”) of our emails.

As I remarked a couple years ago, the Christmas card is another tradition that is becoming obsolete. We still send them out, but I am not sure we will this year. Most of my siblings did not bother to send us one last year, but they did send us holiday email newsletters. It certainly was quicker and there was nothing to stamp. It did not quite have that personal feel to it though.

I still “mail” most of my packages through the Post Office, but that is largely from force of habit. My wife typically chooses FedEx. It is not that she chooses them because she needs overnight delivery. She chooses them because they tend to be cheaper than sending packages through the Post Office.

If the Post Office went out of business, magazine publishers would have to adapt. I am not sure they would survive. How would we get our copies of Time, National Geographic and Reader’s Digest? I bet publishers would find a way. Perhaps they would make deals with Starbucks and tell subscribers to pick up their copies there. It is hard to find any community so remote that it does not have a Starbucks. It would also increase their coffee sales, which have been slumping a bit lately. On the other hand, perhaps magazines would use pizza delivery firms. Dominos is also ubiquitous, and their drivers are probably in your neighborhood once a day. They could deliver magazines too, for a small fee.

Increasingly, the whole business model of the U.S. Post Office looks shaky, as evidenced by the expected $1 billion budget deficit this year. Junk mailers (excuse me, “bulk marketers”) pay a hefty premium to clog up your mailbox. I notice that many local businesses avoid using the Post Office. Instead, they work with companies that wrap their fliers inside other fliers, or with local free newspapers that stuff them inside their newspapers. Some companies simply pay people to walk through neighborhoods and leave them on doorsteps or door handles. Even my church is going electronic. It is part of their green strategy. I get my church newsletter in PDF format. They have not yet figured out a way to receive my monthly gift electronically. That will come.

According to the article, the U.S. Post Office is looking at unorthodox ways of paying its bills. If it can get Congress to change the law, you may see a Starbucks in your post office lobby soon. Who knows, maybe there will be a Subway there in time too. My suspicion though is that these are half measures that will not reverse the long-term trend. The Post Office already has gotten periodic bailouts from the government, but it is supposed to be financially independent. I expect that the Post Office will either become like Amtrak and depend on subsidies, or Congress will just pull the plug on this most venerable American institution. It had a good, long ride.

Its death knell may be postponed for a while. The U.S. Post Office still has a few features that cannot yet be met electronically. Email has no guarantee of delivery. Even if the email reaches an inbox, there is no guarantee it will be read. The same is true with junk mail, of course, but at least you have to look at it to determine whether it is a legitimate piece of mail before throwing it in the trash. There is no legal equivalent of registered mail in the email universe. I suspect in time that mail protocols will be upgraded to provide equivalent functionality. Email programs will be required to present the electronic equivalent of registered email. Moreover, since Congress will probably require it, email programs will probably be required to present any unsolicited mail that you agree to be paid to receive. Most of us might supplement our income with revenue from viewing email from bulk marketers. Most likely, our internet service providers will demand a cut of this revenue too. In any event, the financial winner will not be the U.S. Post Office.

Unless, the U.S. Post Office wakes up. About a decade ago, the U.S. Post Office had a program where it offered the electronic versions of registered and certified mail. It quickly went nowhere. It might be an idea worth reviving. If emails sent through the U.S. Post Office network were required to be presented in email boxes of U.S. owned ISPs, both ISPs and computer users would probably sign up because, like registered mail, it would have the odor of being “legitimate” email. For example, if you knew that some email carried a U.S. Post Office digital signature, which meant that the bulk emailer paid the U.S. Post Office for the privilege to send it, you might be inclined to allow such mail through, particularly if you got a small rebate to read the email. Similarly, if you needed assurance that a financial transaction was legally electronically delivered to a creditor on a certain date, you might gladly pay a small fee.

This might be a new business model for a 21st Century U.S. Post Office. Otherwise, I believe it will go the way of the milkman.