The danger of forwarding

Kevin Drum has posted an email exchange between convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff and Karl Rove’s assistant, Susan Ralston, part of a larger set released in a bipartisan report by The House Government Reform Committee. Apparently Abramoff sent an email asking for favors to Ralston’s personal(?) pager, and that email was forwarded to the Deputy Assistant to the President and then on to a White House aide. That aide in turn warned a colleague of Abramoff’s that “it is better not to put this stuff in writing in their email system because it might actually limit what they can do to help us, especially since there could be lawsuits, etc.” Abramoff’s response to his colleague’s warning: “Dammit. It was sent to Susan on her mc pager and was not supposed to go into the WH system.”

Political scandal aside, this teaches a fundamental security issue with email. I have no idea whether Ralston’s pager was set to automatically forward email while she was on vacation or (more likely) that she forwarded it on to the Deputy Assistant herself as a way to keep him in the loop. Regardless, it’s clear that Abramoff recognized that having such emails in the official White House system would be a liability, but he had no control over whether its recipients (either Ralston or possibly her automatic forwarder) would be as prudent.

People who want to speak “off the record” usually think about whether a communication channel is likely to be archived, is subject to subpoena, is secure and so forth. But as it becomes easier to transfer between channels that becomes harder to predict. You might not expect me to archive my voicemail, but if I automatically forward my messages to my email as audio attachments then it probably will be. Similarly, you might expect email sent within a company to stay protected inside the firewall, but if just one recipient forwards his email to his GMail account then that security is blown wide open. The folks involved in the Abramoff scandal deserve to be outed, but the next person to be tripped up by this kind of error might not be so deserving.