A Digital Burn Book

In the most Jesuit fashion – given the heat and corruption during this scandalous election, most especially – what a pivotal time for us all to pause, observe, and reflect. Of course, this not only applies to our immediate physical surroundings but, now more than ever, we’re presented an opportunity to reflect on what (of ours) is potentially floating around the vast digital universe. From our parties’ polarizing rhetoric flashing the media daily to personal emails being hacked on an international scale, it seems every word – written or otherwise – is deemed “hackable or discoverable” today within the global village (IL Senator Richard Durbin). Former National Security Council spokesman to President Obama, Tommy Vietor, perhaps put it best indicating how “the volume of hacking is a moment we all have to do a little soul searching.” Sure, why not soul search a little since we’re fully transparent and privacy is obsolete. Do you actually believe those snaps are erased from the Internet after ten seconds? How about those passwords into your online bank accounts?

Regardless, it seems Former Secretary of State, Colin Powell, will be diving deep into his soul after his colorful freedom of speech was recently exploited in the national limelight. Hacked directly from Powell’s personal Gmail account, explicit language surfaced regarding a wide array of public figures, concerns facing our national security, and much more. His comments included, but were certainly not limited to, Hillary’s greediness and “national disgrace” Donald Trump “taking it to the convention” as a result from the media desperately chasing higher ratings.

Piggybacking off of Clinton’s latest breach, and weeks following the DNC chairwoman and Former CIA Director being found in the exact same predicament, clearly no one – no matter how powerful – is safe anymore. But were they ever safe to begin with, especially when their work is magnified onto a national stage? Even amid yet another prospective Russian hacking encounter, some government officials are finally barking at the media with an appropriate counter: Don’t blame Russia – blame yourself. Often whimsical SC Senator Lindsey Graham, for instance, commented tongue-in-cheek on the ever-evolving privacy issue with, “I’m, like, ahead of my time,” since he’s allegedly never emailed before in his professional career. Emphasis on allegedly – only time will tell.

Despite his many critics in this media-blitzed culture, Graham’s “solution” to hacking actually triggered agreement among others, including former chair people of Goldman Sachs and the Federal Reserve – some of which even operated in their roles (admittedly) under an email pseudonym for their own protection. Furthering discussion abroad in Pakistan, in sharp contrast, most political leaders agree to speak to the press only when the batteries are removed from their devices or they “[cover] the microphones with a pillow.” And rightfully so, considering everyone’s legacy is continually questioned and remains at risk for international scrutiny – even, unfortunately in this day in age, posthumously. So are these tactics to remain secure and private becoming the new digital norm?

Entertainment and popular culture, too, has their hands in the hacking debate. Television’s Mr. Robot is quickly gaining traction atop the Emmy stage, John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight took an admirable stab at encryption policies, and The Washington Post coupled Secretary Powell’s overt comments with passages from the Mean Girls’ burn book. Whether you believe President George W. Bush actually made out with a hot dog or read into Powell’s jarring comments on President Bill Clinton’s ongoing infidelity, these digital burn books sell at precipitous rates. But this frequent gossip and public shaming inevitably led to more overarching questions regarding our freedom of speech and, more importantly, our privacy – or lack thereof. Ironically, while these issues have been brought to the forefront of public policy, the individuals who would be spearheading the strategic plans are the epicenter to the concerns in the first place.

Since there is such a fine line between showcasing a few juicy emails from a political candidate and having complete access to someone’s identity, hacking remains a watered-down federal felony; this is seen, firsthand, with how seldom the media tracks these hacking investigations in the public eye (and whether they are happening at all from the FBI). Plaguing the front pages with Secretary Powell’s or Clinton’s solicited opinions has led to insurmountable interest from audiences ethically posing the question if hacking legalities – for the media, especially – actually trumps their imminent publicity in seeking stronger ratings. Likewise, will the 2016 election season be the worst (or perhaps the best?) we see of it, or will it only be exacerbated in the years to come for every industry exposed with digital media presence? Where is the limit – and when will it be drawn? Given the ubiquity of emerging media today – or according to Mean Girls, at least – the limit does not exist, yet.

Doug J. Umberger

Emerging Media Graduate Student

Loyola University



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