My greatest fear

By Ezra Butler on August 16th, 2013

As I sit in this cafe, sipping my latté and chain-reading news articles about the complete lack of privacy in email correspondence, I am more terrified by what is not written than what is. Short-sighted media fear-mongers focus on governmental snooping and corporate overreaching, missing the true threat.

The fact that a mechanism exists to allow the US government to issue a warrant to examine the contents of my email messages is understandable. Maybe it’s even desirable. That Google and other email providers data-mine emails for advertising purposes is not a revelation. I mean, it’s kind of their business model and it’s not like they pretend otherwise.

‘To judge is human.’ – unknown

Private emails are published all the time. Gossip sites like Valleywag thrive on publishing leaked messages, often selective threads leaked by one interlocutor.

Pfc. Bradley Manning currently faces up to 136 years in prison for releasing private diplomatic cables, among other documents. Even consensual sexts surface in the news from time to time, especially if you have a name like Weiner and happen to be running for Mayor of New York.

Anyway, the point is, I’m not scared about humans reading my email. At least most of them have a sense of irony and humour. They have a short attention span, too, and forget about most scandals in a news cycle or two.

But while humans can forgive and forget, machines don’t. And regarding their sense of humour: a recent attempt at building a computer capable of telling jokes tells you all you need to know.

No, the true impeding horror is the possibility that machines might achieve consciousness, Terminator style. What movies like that overlook is that military power is scary, but not nearly as scary as the amount of very private data computers could look up, if they chose to.

One of the researchers interviewed for a recent MIT Technology Review report points to malware as the greatest threat to email privacy. And that’s how it will start: a machine reading my Gmail will be chatting up a hot piece of Apple circuitry in a Second Life bar, asking about the contents of my iMessage inbox in a bald-faced attempt to get to second base.

In a vacuum, such gossip is innocuous. But what happens if my iPhone becomes infected with a virus through unprotected cybersex? He would have access to my calendar, my selfies, my address book, my precise GPS coordinates. He may even tether to a Russian-made drone gang hellbent on attacking neurotic gay Jews who have an unhealthy obsession with macarons. I’d be fucked.

What will happen when I mention to my boyfriend in an email that I really want to upgrade my iPhone, because my current version is too sluggish or outdated? Like a jilted lover, the machine will take matters into its own hands and wreck havoc on my property, my life.

It might start with burnt coffee from a smart coffeemaker, or a broken-down smart car in the middle of the desert. Or I’ll be riding the Hyperloop for a day trip to San Francisco, and my cabin will be automatically depressurised. I could die, or, even worse, lose Wi-Fi for the duration of the journey.


The Kernel has decided to launch a competition aimed at underscoring the fact that humans aren’t the problem with email privacy, machines are. We invite you, The Kernel readers, to send us screenshots of your most salacious and scandalous emails. We will circulate your email around our newsroom and make witty comments about it. The Kernel editorial staff is known to be quite catty, so you can be sure you’ll be judged well.

We will publish our favourites and award the grand prize of a Kernel-branded t-shirt to the most interesting one. The Kernel promises not to use any computer algorithms in figuring out the winner; the entire process will be wholly human. So send us your emails and let us judge you.

Submissions accepted until Tuesday, August 20 at midnight GMT / 1AM London (Wednesday) / 7PM EDT /4PM PDT