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Email Security: Three Questions School Leaders Should Ask

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Hillary Clinton's email problems serve as a call for school leaders and all educators to take a look at how we are dealing with technology and what we are teaching.  Her decision to use one smartphone and a personal email account has raised questions about her intention. We also need to consider the questions based on the changing times, technology and the challenge of keeping up with it all.

From Media Matters:

But as the technology blog Mashable reports, maintaining separate personal and government accounts on the same device is less secure, presenting a 'real concern of attack vectors on the personal side.' Moreover, when Clinton became secretary of state in 2009, 'there was no standard way to secure a BlackBerry like Clinton's with two email accounts, at least not without giving the IT person in charge complete dominion over all the data on the phone. To fulfill the criteria that Clinton demanded -- secure email that's not sitting on a cloud service, plus a single-BlackBerry solution -- she had just one option: Set up her own email server.'

The Washington Post similarly reports that "senior administration officials having two phones is still common to this day" due to security concerns. Former Obama speechwriter Jon Favreau wrote on Twitter that it was impossible to have two White House accounts on one phone 'until maybe 2011-12.'"

If experts are confused about proper use of email and servers how can we be clear?  If experts are confused about safety and security, can we keep pace wiht the information needed to prepare students for college and career in the arena of digital communication?  This is the 21st century version of the training some of us received in decades past...duck and cover, don't touch the third rail and fire drills. Today's dangers are unclear; they are distant and close at hand both.  Safety in technology is becoming more challenging than safety on the railroad tracks, in cars or airplanes.

We must not step away from the responsibility of knowing, modeling, and teaching the proper use of technology.  If the experts can't answer the questions about the Secretary of State's email how can we be confident in our own use of technology or the direction and guidance we offer the students? 

This highlights the new arena in which teachers and leaders have found themselves. We are not only the purveyors of information, but the provokers of inquiry and learning. We do not have all the answers. The good news is...we do have some pretty good questions. It is important to ask them and search for answers, albeit answers that are often quickly changing ones. Because of the growing use and capabilities of technology, these are not questions that can be asked and answered only once. The questions about Hillary Clinton's email are answered differently today than in the day of Madeline Albright.

  • Do the person(s) who are in charge of the technology in our district know about how to protect privacy in email communications in ways that allow communication to take place safely, privately, and with a level of protection against breaches?
  • Do we know, if we are using personal and school emails on one smartphone and there is an investigation of any kind, is it the phone or the email account that can be searched in an investigation?
  • If we use a personal email account to have conversations with students, parents, and colleagues, and there is an investigation of any kind, are my private emails exposed and reviewed as well?

ABC News reported

...two prior secretaries of state either exclusively used government email or used no email at all, and a third avoided private email for classified matters, sources close to them told ABC News. An official close to Condoleezza Rice, who led the State Department for three years under George W. Bush, said Rice never used a personal email account for State Department business. A former State Department official close to Secretary Madeline Albright, who served in the late '90s, said she didn't use email at all. Peggy Cifrino, a spokesman for Colin Powell, said the emails he did send from a personal account were mostly unclassified in nature and preceded any policy forbidding the practice of using personal email for work.

Within the time period beginning with Madeline Albright and continuing until today, technology has certainly changed, rules have changed, and perceptions about all of it has changed.  (Personally, it is irking that the paragraph quoted above goes from Condoleezza Rice to Madeline Albright and then to Colin Powell when it should be from Madeline Albright to Colin Powell, to Condoleezza Rice).

Changes in communication technology continue to move more quickly than those of us using it.  The desire for convenience may endanger privacy and transparency. We recall hearing a story several years ago about an executive in a large company who wanted to use his laptop in a different part of his office. With good intentions he bought a wireless router and installed it himself.  He failed to lock it down with a password. Driving around the building a corporate spy was able to identify the open wireless and hack into his computer. Company policy followed, preventing employees from installing their own equipment. The likelihood of that taking place today is far less than it was then. We learn but often after a conspicuous mistake or a bad decison.

Before today's students leave our schools and graduate into their independent young adulthood, they may all be wearing their technology on their wrists, and in their glasses. Banning the use of them or the wearing of them in our schools may be impossible. It makes much more public than ever before. Hillary Clinton thought having one device was "convenient". We wonder what she thinks now. Unless we grapple with the questions about proper use, potential outcomes and ethics regarding technology while students remain in our schools, the dangers inherent in the use of such powerful tools will graduate along with them. In a worst case scenario, those young adults end up on fraternity videos and reveal to the world inner thoughts and values that express how far we still need to come as human beings. Technology reveals secrets and private moments; it has changed the meaning of public and private and now we need to learn to lead in that world. 

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