Sep 17 2008
This seems to be my week to talk about privacy vs. disclosure issues. Between declaring that “social networks will be the downfall of civilization” and Vice-Presidential candidate Sarah Palin’s Yahoo email showing up on Wikileaks, I have more ammo and motivation and subject matter than I’ve had to write on for quite a while. So here goes some of my thoughts on Palin and her right to privacy vs. public disclosure.
Let’s get something clear from the start: The person or group calling themselves Anonymous have committed a crime when they cracked Sarah Palin’s Yahoo account. They committed a crime that will garner them national attention and if the FBI and other law enforcement agencies aren’t already hot on their trail, you can bet they will be soon. And if the crackers aren’t at least a little bit worried about that, then these guys are just plain stupid.
Sarah Palin has a right to privacy. I don’t care that she’s campaigning hard to become the second highest politician in America and possibly the world, she has every right to expect that what goes on in her home, behind closed doors, should be her business and not ours. That includes her phone calls, her voice mail and her email. She has every expectation that the aspects of her personal life that she wants to keep private should be kept private. However, and this is a big ‘however’, the moment that she crosses the line from private citizen to public figure, most of that expectation goes out the window.
There are a number of disclosure laws affecting public officials that mandate that all email and other communication relating to their public office are the property of the government and the public. This starts with the Freedom of Information Act and works it’s way out from there. I wasn’t able to find the laws specific to Alaska, and I’d appreciate any links other people have, but I know there are a number of explicit laws at the national level supporting this. Public business has to be conducted using public resources and we, as the public, have a right to review the email our government is sending. That’s in theory, of course, since in reality getting a FOIA request pushed through the system is much more than most of us have the time and energy to do.
Politicians know this, and in response often try to avoid email and voice mail, having many sensitive conversations face to face or via other, un-monitored means, just so the public won’t be able to review the information later. Palin might not have been using her personal email in an effort to remain un-monitored, but the evidence is definitely shows that she was conducting state business using non-state resources. Something that, as the Governor of Alaska, she had to know she shouldn’t be doing. Either that, or she was incompetent and shouldn’t have been Governor to start with, but I’m willing to give her the benefit of the doubt.
Politicians and celebrities walk an interesting and difficult path. On one hand, they have a right to expect to have private lives. On the other hand, they’ve made a conscious decision to place themselves in the public eye, removing many of the expectations of privacy that most of us take for granted. They knowingly enter a career that requires giving up their privacy in order to gain notoriety, power and exposure. In other words, they’ve traded a certain portion of their privacy for all the fame and fortune that goes along with being in the public eye.
This doesn’t mean that they give up everything. They can still have privacy at home, they still can have private phone calls and they can still private, personal email. But it’s imperative that they respect that privacy and the separation of their private and public lives, or they give up that expectation of privacy. If this was about Sarah Palin and the emails she sent to friends and family, I’d say acknowledge that a breach had happened, stuff the email back in the box somewhere and move on. But Governor Palin, as opposed to Sarah Palin, was conducting state business via her personal email, and that takes everything she could have kept personal and makes it a matter for the public eye. Given the choice between preserving a public figure’s privacy and safeguarding the public by exposing any communication that might be related to governance, the rights of the public have to win out every time, without exception.
I feel bad for Governor Palin. The emails she sent from her personal account might be completely innocent and only occasionally impinge on her position as Governor. But the fact that she’s sending government related email from her personal account places that account squarely in the public domain and may even mean she’s broken the law in doing so. One defense is that this is something everyone does, but that’s a defense my six year old would use, not something a potential Vice President should use. Another is that the hackers did something illegal and that this some how absolves Governor Palin of any wrong doing. But this isn’t the way the law works. Neither is a valid defense.
This should play out in a lot of fun ways over the next couple of days. I don’t often dip my toe into politics, so I fully expect to get some interesting and possibly vehement comments. But for me this is less about politics and more about taking the step from being a private citizen into the arena of serving the public. There’s a trade off that I’m sure not all public officials realize until it’s too late. I wonder if Sarah Palin thought about the privacy she’d be giving up when she became Governor Palin.