U.S. Homeland Security Chief's Personal Cybersecurity Strategy: Don't Use Email

The Citizen's Guide to the Future
Oct. 1 2012 10:26 AM

U.S. Homeland Security Chief's Personal Cybersecurity Strategy: Don't Use Email

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano
Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, left, talks with Matthew Olsen, director of the National Counterterrorism Center, before testifying before the House Homeland Security Committee on July 25.

Photo by T.J. Kirkpatrick/Getty Images

The nation's top security official on Friday disclosed her foolproof strategy for never having her email hacked: She doesn't have any.

Will Oremus Will Oremus

Will Oremus is Slate's senior technology writer.

At a cybersecurity summit hosted by the National Journal and Government Executive, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano was discussing the need for Americans to pay more attention to their Internet passwords and security habits. "Decades ago nobody put a seatbelt on when they got in a car," she said. "In fact, cars didn't even come with seatbelts. We need that same kind of cultural awareness and safety more quickly where cybersafety is concerned."

The moderator followed up by asking Napolitano about her own cybersecurity habits. Does she have different passwords for Amazon and iTunes? Does she use two-factor authentication for her email?

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Not exactly, Napolitano admitted. "Well, um, OK, don't laugh, but I just don't use email at all. For a whole host of reasons, I don't have any of my own accounts. So, you know, I'm very secure. ... Some would call me a Luddite, but that's my own personal choice."

I wouldn't call her a Luddite. I'd call her prudent. Napolitano knows better than just about anyone how hard it is to keep your electronic communications secure these days. In fact, her strategy suggests that it's essentially impossible. Granted, public records acts mean that government officials have to be especially circumspect with the contents of their work emails. But for Napolitano not to even have a personal account suggests that she's worried about hackers as well as subpoenas. And if the woman in charge of the country's cybersecurity doesn't feel secure enough to venture into cyberspace herself, what does that say to the rest of us?

Napolitano isn't the first person in her position to eschew email. The New York Daily News reports that her predecessor, Michael Chertoff, didn't have an account either. And before Barack Obama, who apparently still clings to his Blackberry, U.S. presidents generally went email-less as well.

Of course, top public officials have the luxury of forgoing email, because they can have all of their news and communications delivered in person by advisers. Most of us have no choice. In that sense, Napolitano's approach is a little like that of the public-schools superintendent who sends his own kids to private school. What's good enough for everyone else isn't good enough for her. It's hard to blame her, but it doesn't exactly instill a lot of confidence, either.

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University.

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