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Clinton's Private Email Server Has Advantages, Vulnerabilities


When she was secretary of state, Hillary Clinton was a prolific emailer. She was so frequently photographed on her Blackberry that it led to a quite funny Internet meme. As first reported in The New York Times this week, all of that email float through a personal email address and not through the State Department servers, even when Clinton was conducting official government business. This means Clinton's email may have been out of sight of the prying eyes of reporters and congressional investigators. One House committee has already subpoenaed any emails dealing with Benghazi. NPR's technology correspondent Steve Henn joined us for more. Good morning.

STEVE HENN, BYLINE: Good morning.

MONTAGNE: OK, what do we know, Steve, about Clinton's rather unusual email practices?

HENN: Well, it really was unusual for anyone. The AP published a fascinating story where they track the IP address for Clinton email and found that it appears that she actually physically bought a email server and put it in her house in Chappaqua, N.Y. That server, according to a Ph.D. candidate at Stanford, Jonathan Mayer, is still up and running today. And that's really very unusual. I mean, hardly anyone I know, even out here in Silicon Valley, runs their own email server from their home.

MONTAGNE: And why would she or anyone go to all that trouble? Because so obviously you can get any email for free from Google and other companies.

HENN: Right. There are problems with that, though, from a privacy perspective. If you have a personal account at Google or Yahoo and you become the subject of an investigation or if you have an email account at an office, the investigator doesn't necessarily have to serve you to get at your email account. But by actually owning this server, Clinton would never be in that position. So this was actually a pretty sophisticated way to retain legal control of all of her email.

And so in the last few months, Clinton has turned over thousands of old emails to the State Department. Late last night, she tweeted that she hoped the State Department would make all of those public. But through that entire process, she had a lot of control. It's worth pointing out that she is not the only politician who has created a personal email setup like this. Jeb Bush actually did something very similar when he was the governor of Florida.

MONTAGNE: What - OK. So she set up this system, apparently has these legal advantages. But there are disadvantages, right?

HENN: Right. A number of cybersecurity experts I've spoken to said securing an email server, especially when you're someone as prominent as Hillary Clinton, is a very difficult task. Christopher Soghoian's a cybersecurity expert and a researcher at the ACLU. He believes she was taking an enormous risk. Let's hear from him now.

CHRISTOPHER SOGHOIAN: Whoever Secretary Clinton had running that server for her isn't going to be capable of protecting that server from a well-resourced, well-financed intelligence agency like the Chinese, Russians or Israelis.

HENN: The State Department has said that Secretary Clinton didn't use that email address for classified communication. And of course, the State Department has had its own checkered history when it comes to cybersecurity. Its email was hacked back in 2006 and then again in 2014.

MONTAGNE: All very interesting, and this story will continue, I am sure. Steve Henn, thanks very much.

HENN: My pleasure.

MONTAGNE: Steve Henn is NPR's technology correspondent. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Steve Henn is NPR's technology correspondent based in Menlo Park, California, who is currently on assignment with Planet Money. An award winning journalist, he now covers the intersection of technology and modern life - exploring how digital innovations are changing the way we interact with people we love, the institutions we depend on and the world around us. In 2012 he came frighteningly close to crashing one of the first Tesla sedans ever made. He has taken a ride in a self-driving car, and flown a drone around Stanford's campus with a legal expert on privacy and robotics.