Can the President of the U.S. use e-mail?

(Please note, because of the time that has passed since I wrote this article, it may no longer reflect my current views or the most accurate and complete information available on this subject.)

The Times has a nice little article today about why Barack Obama will probably have to give up the use of his Blackberry - and e-mail altogether - when he becomes President:

As his team prepares a final judgment on whether he can keep using e-mail, perhaps even in a read-only fashion, several authorities in presidential communication said they believed it was highly unlikely that he would be able to do so.

Diana Owen, who leads the American Studies program at Georgetown University, said presidents were not advised to use e-mail because of security risks and fear that messages could be intercepted.

“They could come up with some bulletproof way of protecting his e-mail and digital correspondence, but anything can be hacked,” said Ms. Owen, who has studied how presidents communicate in the Internet era. “The nature of the president’s job is that others can use e-mail for him.”

Surely there's some middle ground to keep a President as tech-savvy as Barack Obama from being forced off of e-mail altogether? I mean, this is the guy who announced his VP pick by SMS text message, for crying out loud.

Here are some scenarios to explore:

It's clear that the President could probably not have a public e-mail address that was directly addressable from any other e-mail account, and that was expected to be read by the President himself. It would be flooded hourly with requests, comments and threats from around the world, and instantly become useless as a form of effective correspondence.

The White House does already have a public e-mail address, comments@whitehouse.gov, but they make it clear that they probably won't respond, and that you can't even send graphics or attachments. (How the heck are we supposed to share funny photos of our cats, then!?) I suspect that they have some serious hardware and network capacity dedicated just to receiving and processing mail sent to that address - there's no way that much or any of it will make it's way to a laptop on the President's desk.

Here's one option: the President could have a private e-mail address that is directly addressable within the executive branch of the U.S. government, using a private domain (e.g. president@whitehouse.gov.private) and set of mail exchangers. This would allow Barack Obama to e-mail with other government officials who have established addresses, taking advantage of the utility of e-mail for more direct conversations and unfiltered access to information. Anyone wishing to reply to his messages could send e-mail like usual, and as long as they were on that private network, it would go through.

When the President wanted to send e-mail outside of this private network of addresses to a regular e-mail address, his message would be intercepted by a correspondence manager who could insure that the message was free of sensitive information, and that it would not be a source of embarrassment for anyone if delivered to the wrong hands.

Here's a hard part: should that recipient with a regular e-mail address be able to reply? If it's to some other regular e-mail address, e.g. "barack.obama@whitehouse.gov," then that just wouldn't do, because the address would eventually leak out and become just as much a target for a flood of messages as "comments@" might be now.

BUT, a variation on that might work. The President's outgoing message could be dynamically rewritten to appear to come from an address that had an expiration date, and that used a unique hash token to prevent guessing it - this is common in software like TMDA and other special e-mail submission systems. So instead of

From: barack.obama@whitehouse.gov

it might be

From: barack.obama-JLK23ADSF23423K@whitehouse.gov

and it would only work for, say, up to 70 hours (or a week, or...). The next time the President responds, it comes from a different address, which also only works for 70 hours. In this manner, correspondents of the President with regular e-mail addresses could carry on an e-mail conversation and not worry about the address becoming public in a way that mattered. If someone tried to e-mail the expired address, they'd get a bounce back saying, "sorry, please e-mail comments@whitehouse.gov."

For someone with a regular e-mail address to initiate a conversation with the President, we'd have to take a slightly different approach - the addresses would essentially need to go on a pre-approved list of correspondents whose messages would be allowed to go to "comments@whitehouse.gov" and be automatically filtered straight on through to the President's internal (not publicly addressable) account.

So, to initiate an e-mail conversation with the President, you'd either have to be a known associate with a known e-mail address, or you'd have to be an employee of the Federal government with an established e-mail account. Better than nothing, right?

Another pitfall: the President would still generally have to consider any content sent via e-mail, whether it was to a private internal address or not, as up for public scrutiny. Until whomever controls Presidential records passes a law identifying some kinds of Presidential communications as truly private, it's just the reality of the thing. And even if that did happen, we all know how easy it is for an e-mail that wasn't meant for you to make it into your hands, so it's probably just safe to assume that's happening anyway.

From the article:

For all the perquisites and power afforded the president, the chief executive of the United States is essentially deprived by law and by culture of some of the very tools that other chief executives depend on to survive and to thrive. Mr. Obama, however, seems intent on pulling the office at least partly into the 21st century on that score; aides said he hopes to have a laptop computer on his desk in the Oval Office, making him the first American president to do so.

Well, that's my brain dump on how it might work to let the President of the United States of America have an e-mail account he can actually use. What do you think?

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