The Lesson of the Bush Family E-Mail Hack: Be Worried

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Former U.S. Presidents George W. Bush and George H.W. Bush are shown on screens at the Tampa Bay "Times" forum during the Republican National Convention in Tampa on Aug. 29, 2012

When was the last time you sent an e-mail you wouldn’t want to see posted on the Smoking Gun? A message about your finances? A complaint about the way that friend was behaving last night? A sweet nothing to a new someone? An angry rant about … well, you get the point. It hasn’t been long. Most people do this every week, if not every day, and not because they are conniving. Some things should just be private. Now the Bush family — the one with two living Presidents and lifetime Secret Service protection — has a message for you: be worried.

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A hacker by the name of Guccifer has apparently hacked into several Bush family AOL accounts, pilfered private photos and messages and posted them online. The Smoking Gun, pursuant to their mission, republished it all. The stolen goods include a private letter from George W. Bush to his family about planning the funeral of his father. They include private correspondence from the Fox News journalist Brit Hume on the “silver linings” in the 2012 election. They include a Jeb Bush e-mail about how George H.W. Bush “helped restore” Bill Clinton’s “sordid reputation.” There is more. You can read about it off site. You can also look at the PG-rated pictures that George W. Bush apparently painted of himself bathing.

There is a criminal investigation. This guy may get caught, just like the guy who hacked Scarlett Johansson’s cell phone got caught. But that will be little consolation. (And it was little consolation to all those members of Congress in recent years who found their private R-rated photos trending on Google.) The fact is that the digital age makes us all unduly vulnerable. As Katy Steinmetz recently wrote for TIME, your digital records will outlive you and may cause your family problems. The permanence of online utterances — a delight to prosecutors, Facebook and snoops — is a bane for the rest of us.

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Which is why you should channel the titillation you feel right now at the chance to see a painting of a former President in the bath, and take some time to read Businessweek’s new cover story about Snapchat, the not-so-new online social network that is based around photos that self-destruct 10 seconds after you look at them. It’s not a complete solution, but it is the beginning of one. Technology has created an enormous burden on all of us. Over time, more companies will move into this space, selling not just a way for us to connect to one another — a technology that long ago left novelty and became a commodity — but a way for us to better protect our connections by eliminating their trail. (Facebook already has a Snapchat mimic called Poke.) There is no good reason that e-mails you wrote three years ago should be so hard to delete or still be living on the servers of your friends’ e-mail clients. There is no good reason that you still don’t understand your Facebook privacy settings. There is a market out there for improvement.

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