Write it on the blackboard a thousand times — nothing digital is private

Listen
 (<a href=Photo via ShutterStock) " title="ssonlineprivacyx1200" width="640" height="360"/>

(Photo via ShutterStock)

When Superman gets near kryptonite, he loses his powers.

Apparently, something similar happens to many Americans when they get near email, Facebook or Twitter. They lose their powers of common sense.

As people’s exhibits A through D, I give you Kathryn Knott, Frank Noonan, E. Christopher Abruzzo and Kevin Harley.

Knott is a suspect in the recent Philadelphia gay beating case. When her name popped up, news reporters did what they now do as a matter of course. They checked her social media accounts. There they found reams of bigoted comments and jokes about binge drinking. Worse, they found images of patient x-rays Knott culled while working at a suburban hospital. Patient privacy? Ha!

Not surprisingly, she is now a former employee of said hospital.

The three men named were all top aides in the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s office when Tom Corbett ran it. All three went on to key jobs in his administration. Noonan is state police commissioner. Abruzzo runs the Department of Environmental Protection.   Harley was Corbett’s top spokesman.

All three have been identified by the current attorney general, Kathleen Kane, as senders and/or recipients of pornographic images that allegedly flew about on government email accounts between 2008 and 2012.

In a stomach-turning irony, some of these emails occurred while the AG’s office was investigating the odious sex crimes of Jerry Sandusky. What’s more, Corbett’s great accomplishment as AG was prosecuting the Bonusgate corruption scandal, where convictions were obtained in part through the evidence of government emails.

Whatever you think of men who feel the need to send other men dirty pictures, can we agree that doing so on a government email account amounts to grotesque stupidity?

What’s the lesson here? It’s an old one, but one that some part of the human brain doesn’t seem able to grasp. Email is not private. Nor is Facebook. Nor Twitter. No magic protective bubble prevents people who aren’t your friends from seeing what you do there. Unless you possess, as Liam Neeson once said in that movie, a very particular set of skills, traces of everything you do with ones and zeroes linger for strangers to find.

I include myself in the general stupidity. It took me far more bad experiences that it should have to learn that angry or opinionated emails I sent to one person were not really private. Sometimes, they end up on web sites.

In modern America, privacy is a lost dream. What’s most amazing is how eagerly we’ve done this to ourselves.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.