When word broke this week that Republican Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin's use of private e-mail accounts for state business is being investigated, I had unwanted flashbacks to the White House e-mail scandal. "Here we go again," I thought.
At the same time, though, I realize that almost everybody uses personal e-mail accounts for business purposes -- maybe when servers at work are down, or when mail sent from a work account is inadvertently blocked by the recipient's spam filter. (The latter happened to me just last month when I was trying to send questions to a prospective interview subject.)
From what I've read about Alaska's rules on the matter (which, admittedly, isn't much), there is nothing legally wrong with using a private e-mail account for state business as long as e-mails that address state business and don't fall under certain exemptions are captured and retained for the public record. That said, however, it is certainly not good practice, for several reasons. I'll discuss two in particular here.
The first has been illustrated quite vividly by the hackers who managed to gain access to Palin's Yahoo accounts and scatter various e-mails, photos, etc., throughout cyberspace: If state business is conducted via a private account, even if copies of messages were made and retained for the record, the state cannot manage the security of the information contained in those messages. Anyone can get to them.
The second has also been illustrated in Palin's situation in that many have assumed that she used the private accounts to evade the record retention requirement in order to cover up inappropriate actions. That may have been the motive, but it may not have been. Time and further investigation will reveal that. But should an executive -- either of a state or of a company -- even leave room for people to speculate whether she has reason to keep e-mail under wraps?
I don't think she should.