What we should all learn from Sarah Palin’s e-mail hack

Sarah Palin may seem like the Belinda Stronach of American politics – the conservative who comes out of nowhere and attracts more scrutiny over her looks and gender than her track record in government – but she may actually share a greater kinship with fallen former Foreign Affairs Minister Maxime Bernier.

The U.S. vice-presidential nominee was already dealing with the tabloids prying into her personal life before a hacker managed to crack into her Yahoo! account. Much like the revelations of her pregnant daughter and son with Down’s Syndrome, the e-mail security breach should make her more sympathetic to the American voter. Not only could it happen to any of us, as researchers were quick to assert, but it’s a wonder it doesn’t happen to more of us more often. Like a lot of knowledge workers, Palin was blurring the professional and the personal in terms of her IT usage. It doesn’t have the drama of Bernier’s ex-girlfriend with the alleged ties to biker gangs or the sensationalism of a tempestuous affair and documents reportedly left at a lover’s loft, but Palin’s e-mail incident is instructive precisely because it is so pedestrian.

It’s possible that this election will make U.S. history in an unexpected way: that for the first time candidates for office are being evaluated (or at least criticized) for the way in which they manage, share and store electronic information. It’s not a trivial matter. By allegedly conducting state business via Yahoo!, Palin was, in a sense, an early adopter of cloud computing, highlighting both the ease of using Web-based communication and the dangers of trusting a public rather than a private, protected network. If she was truly trying to get around the data retention rules, well, what could be more all-American? Or Canadian, for that matter?

That the McCain-Palin campaign has made little comment on the e-mail breach is disappointing. Unlike the gaffs which have so far plagued the parties in the Canadian federal election – Puffin poop and brainless bloggers – the Republicans may be missing an opportunity to truly lead by example. In this case, it would amount to admitting there was an error in judgment, a commitment to learning more about the risks involved in using personal software applications for business purposes and a recognition that appropriate handling of information has to start at the top.

Perhaps politicians shy away from such things because they don’t fully understand the liabilities that surround electronic messaging, or they don’t think it’s a topic likely to engage the average citizen. And they may be right. Still, IT managers who spend their days trying to craft usage policies can’t be the only ones who would appreciate the value of working behind the firewall. In the U.S. they tend to focus on electing a Commander-in-Chief. Perhaps we should all start rallying for someone who can prove themselves a worthy User-in-Chief too.

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