Prof. William Cronon, from the University of Wisconsin, started a blog, Scholar as Citizen, wherein he critiqued Republican policies in the State of Wisconsin and elsewhere. I’m going to skip the politics and focus on the fact that the Republicans used Wisconsin’s FOIA mechanism to ask for a wide variety of his emails and they’re likely to get them.
Cronon believes this is a fishing expedition to find material to discredit him and he’s probably correct. He also notes that he scrupulously segregates his non-work-related emails into a private account (perhaps Gmail) while doing his work-related email using his wisc.edu address, as well he should.
What I find fascinating about the Cronon case is that it highlights a threat model for email privacy that doesn’t get much discussion among my professional peers. Sophisticated cryptographic mechanisms don’t protect emails against a FOIA request (or, for that matter, a sufficiently motivated systems administrator).
When I’ve worked in the past with lawyers when our communications weren’t privileged (i.e., opposing counsel would eventually receive every email we ever exchanged), we instead exchanged emails of the form “are you available for a phone call at 2pm?” and not much else. This is annoying when working on a lawsuit and it would completely grind to a halt the regular business of a modern adacemic.
While Cronon doesn’t want to abandon his wisc.edu address, consider the case that he could just forward his email to Gmail and have the university system delete its local copy (which is certainly an option for me with my rice.edu email). At that point, it becomes an interesting legal question of whether a FOIA request can compel production of content from his “private” email service. (And, future lawmaking could well explicitly extend the reach of FOIA to private accounts, particularly when many well-known politicians and others subject to FOIA deliberately conduct their professional business on private servers.)
Here’s another thing to ponder: When I send email from Gmail, it happily forges my rice.edu address in the from line. This allows me to use Gmail without most of the people who correspond with me ever knowing or caring that I’m using Gmail. By blurring the lines between my rice.edu and gmail.com email, am I also blurring the boundary of legal requests to discover my email? Since Rice is a private university, there are presumably no FOIA issues for me, but would it be any different for Prof. Cronon? Could or should present or future FOIA laws compel you to produce content from your “private” email service when you conflate it with your “professional” email address?
Or, leaving FOIA behind for the minute, could or should my employer have any additional privilege to look into my Gmail account when I’m using it for all of my professional emails and forging a rice.edu mail header?
One last alternative: Let’s say I appended some text like this at the bottom on my email:
My personal email is dwallach at gmail.com and my professional email is dwallach at rice.edu. Please use the former for personal matters and the latter for professional matters.
If I go to explicit lengths to separate the two email addresses, using separate services, and making it abundantly clear to all my correspondents which address serves which purpose, could or should that make for a legally significant difference in how FOIA treats my emails?