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Sep 23, 2019

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This Is Uncomfortable
Codebreaker, by Marketplace and Tech Insider

Is it evil? A year of email controversies

Donna Tam Sep 30, 2016
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An environmentalist dressed as a mock lobbyist holds a banner reading 'Recruting e-mail hackers' during the third day of the United Nations Climate Change Conference in 2009 in Copenhagen, Denmark.
Miguel Villagran/Getty Images

To prepare for Season 2 of our tech podcast “Codebreaker,” we’re revisiting Season 1 and exploring the news around the technology scrutinized in each episode. First up: email.

In Season 1 of “Codebreaker,” we asked: is email evil?

“You’re asking an alcoholic whether they think alcohol is evil while they are drunk,” Marketplace reporter Sabri Ben-Achour told the podcast’s host Ben Johnson.

Sabri’s email habit aside, he decided that the technology is not evil; people are.

“Email dismantles the barriers and filters that we have erected to contain our evil selves,” he said. Does he still feel this way, nearly a year later? Yup.

“Email has a few attributes that simultaneously make it useful and bring out the worst in us,” he wrote, appropriately, in an email.

To Sabri’s point, there has been plenty of “evil” behavior from people around email in the last year. Let’s take a look at some of the bigger controversies related to email in the past year:

Ted Cruz: Shortly after Texas Senator Ted Cruz stunned his supporters by endorsing Donald Trump, Politico reported Cruz had already been renting his supporter database to his bitter primary rival for months. The Cruz campaign charges up to $51,000 for access to the list of 1.28 million emails, and the Trump campaign has used it at least 30 times in between June and September.

Yahoo: The company told users this month that at least 500 million user accounts were stolen by a “state-sponsored actor” in late 2014. The company had conducted a “recent investigation” the revealed the hack, which included information like names, emails phone numbers and passwords, but no payment information.

Colin Powell: Some leaked personal emails revealed how retired four-star general Colin Powell really felt about our presidential candidates. In his emails, he called Trump “a national disgrace and an international pariah,” and described Clinton as “(having) unbridled ambition, greedy, not transformational.”

DNC: Russian hackers accessed the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the DNC’s fundraising arm, and leaked emails that portrayed the DNC’s leaders in a biased light. Some emails that surfaced suggested the party was favoring Hillary Clinton over her then-rival Bernie Sanders. The leak led to multiple officials resigning and had some people questioning if they should stop using email altogether.

Apple: The Mic said it received 50 pages of emails from current and former Apple employees that illustrated the company’s allegedly sexist work environment. The website used the emails to highlight Apple’s lack of diversity — an industry-wide issue in tech. One of the employees wrote that she sent an email to CEO Tim Cook about the the “toxic” environment, but he didn’t respond.

Hillary Clinton: Clinton’s private email server is likely the most talked about email scandal in recent years. Yes, her use of a private email address to discuss classified information was made public in March 2015, but it’s an issue that has taken center stage for this year’s election cycle.

To hear more of the arguments on why email is or isn’t evil, listen to the Codebreaker episode below. When you’re done with that, don’t forget to subscribe to our next season, which asks another question about technology: “Can it save us?”

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