One Simple Email Technique Could Have Averted Election Hacks

When the Democratic National Committee's email system was hacked it was not through some advanced technology but rather a very simple phishing mail. You might think that people dealing with sensitive information would be extra careful, and indeed they were. According to published reports like this one in the Guardian, campaign chair John Podesta received a phishing mail sent to a private account. An aide, Charles Delavan, spotted this and forwarded it to a computer technician intending to flag it as dangerous. But inadvertently he typed "This is a legitimate mail", rather than "illegitimate".

Thanks to this typo outsiders were later able to gain access to Podesta's emails, which were leaked in the run up to the 2016 presidential election. Quite possibly this single mistake cost the Democratic party a presidency and possibly much more. Emails often have consequences but this one will end up being a case example in email workshops.

Yet this confusion could have been avoided if more organizations would teach employees to use redundancy in their emails.  This simply means adding a few more words so that a single typo cannot reverse the meaning. So, for example, if someone asks if you will be attending a conference you could reply simply "yes", but if you type "no" by mistake because you forgot the exact question then there is no way that the recipient could detect that mistake. If instead you write "Yes, I will attend the conference and I look forward to meeting you there." then several possible typos would make it obvious nonsense and you would ask for clarification.

In the DNC email hack case if the message had been "This is a phishing message. Please remove it and change Mr Podesta's password." then there would be much less chance of the message being misinterpreted. One-word emails are very common, especially when people are writing one handed on a smartphone, but this is not good practice because misunderstandings are commonplace. There might be some cases where it doesn't matter very much, but when you know that a message is important and that a misunderstanding could have serious consequences then it is wise to make that extra effort.

This is not a new discovery and I have been teaching the redundancy method in email workshops since the 1990s. One real-life example I have often mentioned is the person who sent an email saying "I will come visit you on Wednesday 29th March", receiving in response "I could meet you on Tuesday 29 or Wednesday 30 but alas not Wednesday 29 because it doesn't exist."  If the original sender had said just the day or just the date the mistake would never have been caught and somebody would have traveled to another city on the wrong date.

Redundancy might seem like extra work, but sorting out the consequences of over-terse emails will make even more work.

Lectures, Workshops, Coaching and Writing

Contact Andrew Hennigan on 0046 730 894 475 or if you'd like to talk about a workshop to learn how to write emails that are effective, efficient and safe.


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