Scientists, Privacy, Emails, Climategate…

Judith Curry has a post up on what expectations scientists should have regarding their email correspondence, writing “One would think that, following Climategate, climate scientists should expect that their emails might by made public, either through hacking or FOIA requests. Nevertheless, more than 6 years later, the debate continues to rage over the sanctity (or not) of climate scientists’ emails.”

We should first ask if scientists are entitled to more protection in their correspondence than the rest of us. I am not sure I see any reason for scientists to be singled out on this issue, so I say what’s good enough for scientists is good enough for the rest of us–and vice versa.

Which then brings us to the overwhelming question, what expectation of privacy should we all have with regards to our email correspondence?

I think we should have a presumptive right to privacy in personal communications of all types, including emails. (I believe for example that the NSA routinely violates these rights and I don’t think they should.)

Emails we write using company property (servers, computers, email programs) are a matter of contract between employer and employee and if that contract is freely entered into by both parties I think it’s fine for organizations to have the right to examine work emails.

But I don’t think that outside organizations should have the right to look at emails without a warrant. There should be a specific accusation of a specific crime and prima facie evidence justifying examination of those emails.

I therefore think that people like Raul Grijalva and Lamar Smith are doing both insult and injury to the American constitution and the rights of Americans when they go after scientists’ emails.

As I wrote in comments at Curry’s, “Want data? Yes. Want records? Yes.

Want emails? No. It’s like retroactive wiretapping.

My concern is inhibiting frank discussion and the exchange of ideas that might put the writer in a bad light if taken out of context.

I co-wrote a book on the Climategate emails. Once they were in the public domain there was no reason not to. However, I received the emails in advance and decided I would not publish them.

The signature example from this experience that I would give of the danger of this is the use skeptics made of ‘Hide the decline,’ where several (many?) skeptics cut the phrase and used it out of context to mean a decline in temperatures when it clearly was not.

In China I had ‘sensitive’ (from a business standpoint) discussions face to face at the request of people I met. Emails were presumed to be read as a matter of course. Telephone conversations were presumed to be tapped. As a foreigner I was advised that I would be a target for surveillance just on that basis. Do we want to be like China?

Do we want scientists self-editing their brainstorms, conjectures and opinions based on a fear that some day some one will do something that prompts a FOI request?

Doing so will negate many of the benefits the internet has brought us and will return influence to those in proximity to each other and sources of power, whether that power be over funding, publication or research directions.

I’m not afraid of Big Brother so much as I am of a never-ending procession of information requests trying to find fault with procedure or politically incorrect speech to harass those on the other side of the fence on any issue.

If there is prima facie evidence of wrong-doing, email correspondence can be subpoenad through existing due process. Let’s leave it at that. Unlike our hostess, I see no difference between Grijalva and Lamar Smith–in their potential effects on scientific conversation.”

I followed up with “The argument about what is covered by FOI and what is not is just a preview of coming distractions. No matter how it is worded, political opponents will always find a reason why this time it’s different and they should be able to look at their enemy’s emails.”

and, “Do we want people outside those organizations to have the ability to inhibit conversations between scientists and hinder the progress of research because at some point in the future someone may have a problem with something one of the scientists has said, written or done?

I argue that it is not in the best interests of either science or society for the answer to that question to be yes.”



19 responses to “Scientists, Privacy, Emails, Climategate…

  1. If you are paid from the public purse – then your employer is the public – and like all employers we have a right to see work emails.

    The problem is not whether the public have a right to see emails paid for by our money – but that some people don’t want to admit that the public is their boss.

  2. “We should first ask if scientists are entitled to more protection in their correspondence than the rest of us.”

    Surely, we should *first* ask if taxpayers are entitled to access the *official* correspondence of those whose wages we pay.

  3. In the case of government employees, I strongly disagree.

    I understand and respect your arguments that exposure to FOI requests inhibits the flow of information and opinion – but government inhibits the flow of information and opinion as a matter of course.

    Have you ever gone through a government employee hiring, RFP or contract process? What you can and cannot ask may seem insane to the outside observer but despite its dysfunction there is a great deal of wisdom to it.

    As for emails, the public has an absolute right to ALL the of work product of a government employee, they must have this to fully understand the reasons behind the policies that affect their lives.

    The public sector is radically different from the private sector. While both the private and public sector make decisions that affect our lives, only the public sector has coercive power – and because of the power to compel, the public must have absolute knowledge about the motivations of government.

    While the privacy of communication is a public good, the right of the public to access the work product of government employees is a greater good.

    As for Grijalva and Lamar Smith, love them or hate them, they are the public sector equivalent to a private sector board of directors… and have a clear line of authority to every federal employee.

    However, there is a difference between their requests, Grijalva was demanding information from parties who were outside his authority. This was not the case with Lamar Smith.

    • Almost Iowa,
      Very well stated, very rational. Thank you.

    • It is well stated, AI–but I disagree. Does the public have the right to the emails of the DoD? The President? The cops on the street? No, and there are good reasons–different reasons for each.

      ‘The public’ didn’t ask for those emails–partisan politicians did, both Grijalva and Smith. Smith didn’t have any idea about the science being discussed in the emails he requested and Grijalva had no knowledge of any funding sources of the scientists he badgered.

      If those emails and funding requests are revealed ‘the public’ won’t read about them and won’t care.

      It’s all special interests fighting for position in a battle that serves the interests only of two different sets of very large corporations, fossil fuels on one side and nuclear/renewable on the other.

      It would have taken one of Grijalva’s staff about six hours to determine that those scientists were not taking suspect funding. If Smith wanted to know what was happening at the EPA he would have talked to the ‘whistleblowers’ himself.

      It’s a pointless game and we are the losers of that game. Now conservatives who normally champion smaller and less intrusive government are screaming for zero privacy while Democrats who can’t survive without massive funding turn their sights on any opponent and ask how they’re being paid.

      We lose.

      • “Does the public have the right to the emails of the DoD? The President? The cops on the street? “

        It certainly does. They are all subject to data practice law and FOI requests.

        Naturally, there is information that is not subject to FOI because it is injurious to the nation or the public and therefore must be redacted – and that is all spelled out in statutes that define data practice policies and FOI.

        Let’s put this in context. I was a public employee for 30 years and because of that, anyone with access to the internet could look up my salary.

        I totally agree with you that what brought this to the public attention is an ugly process and is being abused for partisan purposes – but that does not negate the need for absolute transparency from government. Ugliness is inherent in politics – it is what makes it great. 🙂

      • “Now conservatives who normally champion smaller and less intrusive government are screaming for zero privacy…”

        No one else has yet taken exception to this strawman, so I guess I will. Conservatives are *not* calling for zero privacy, they are instead calling for more transparency (at minimum, that required by law) on the part of their employees.

        Why would you think government paid scientists should not have that basic obligation to their employers? And if they don’t like it, why should they be continue to be employed by government?

      • Actually Tom, we do get nearly all of those emails when the situation affords it.
        Your reluctance to even admit this raises more questions than it answers.
        Government hiding itself from scrutiny while at the same time intruding more and more into our lives is what you are implicitly supporting.

  4. Sorry, the pubic sector must be held to the highest standards of transparency and disclosure. The rent seeking scientists who so greedily suck on the public teat should be held to account for any and all that they produced using tax payer funded resources.

  5. Tom,
    Skipping over or ignoring the pesky fact that what Lamar Smith is doing is his job as described under the Constitution does not advance truth. The NOAA whistle blowers have bravely and clearly made it clear that NOAA corrupted the scientific process to help push Obama’s anti-science agenda. This repeated comparison of a Constitutional process of accountability with Chinese political oppression is out of line. As to “hide the decline”, my take, and that of many others, is that you and Steve performed heroic mental gymnastics to rationalize the noble cause corruption so endemic in the climate community.

  6. Tom:

    I think you got wrong footed here.

    I agree with all the comments that government employees emails are not private.

    Furthermore, no corporate emails are private either.

    Your employer owns them.

    If they wanted (not many do) – they could post them for all to see.

    Remember when all the phone companies (except Verizon) turned over the metadata for phone calls (# calling, #called, date) to the NSA?

    That is their data (the companies) – not yours – you have no right to privacy and each company can do whatever they want with the data.

    Email is like that.

    Unless you have a private email account (like gmail) and use it from a private computer.

    Than you have a right to privacy.

  7. I work for the government and have a government email account which falls under the laws of ATIP (Canada’s version FOIA). Obviously, I have been informed that everything I write using that account belongs to the Gov of Canada. Okay, so far so good.

    Now for ATIP, I have no say whatsoever in which of my emails, files, reports, etc. get released to the public. As a matter of fact, I’m sure there have been requests which have been processed without even my knowledge. Only a few times, I have been asked for email correspondence or files. And I only know some keywords and not who requested them or any other details.

    So I don’t for a minute buy the harassment argument or that it’s time consuming or that it’s intimidating. I may just be lucky but I obviously know a lot of government employees and nobody has had any issue with ATIP affecting them.

    Transparency of my work is not my choice. However, I conduct my business as if every email I send on my government account is posted in a public forum. How hard is that?

  8. Looks like I’m getting outvoted here. Y’all aren’t changing my mind yet.

    I’m not saying privacy outweighs everything. I can see circumstances where there is a public compelling need to examine them. But I don’t think there is a God-given right for any member of the public to peremptorily demand that a public employee disgorge their emails.

    • Again, you’re grasping at strawmen, Tom. No one has said anything about God-given rights, but we all seem to agree that transparency/disclosure of work product is part of the employment agreement of all govenment employees. A contract knowingly entered into, enforced by law – which also defines the parameters of what can be asked for and what needs to be delivered.

      You’re getting outvoted because you are taking an indefensible position.

      • Waitaminnit, kch, I said in my post that I am of the opinion that organizations can look at their employees’ emails, including government organizations. I have no problem with that.

        On the other hand, this is interesting… and may make me think a bit more on it…

      • OK, I’ll concede you said that. However, you followed with:

        “But I don’t think that outside organizations should have the right to look at emails without a warrant.”

        And why the hell not? The taxpayers are paying for it, aren’t they?

        In the current situation, think of this in terms of corporate research, with taxpayers being shareholders and congress being the Board of Directors. The Directors have decided that the shareholders should be allowed to look at the work (both final product and the work process) of their employees. Always, of course, subject to limits determined by the Directors. It’s the law, and the employees should stop whining about it. mpcraig has the right attitude.

        On the other hand, if you simply want to make points about research being hampered by the enforced transparency, I might actually agree with you. You won’t like my solution, though: get government completely out of the business of funding and conducting research. Let them be opaque on their own dime. As long as they’re using my dime, I want to see what they’re doing.

  9. Tom,

    It has come to my attention that we have disagreed twice within the last week. Given the usual norms of partisan hysteria, this is the point when I must consider you as evil. Take heart though, even though you are evil, I don’t consider you the bad kind of evil. [snarf] 🙂 🙂

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