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FBI’s Clinton Email Decision Results in This Election’s Grossest Misunderstanding of Technology

Or willful misconstruing. Take your pick.


Technology has a tendency to change—both itself and the world around it—rapidly, while politicians … don’t, to put it kindly. As the two become increasingly intertwined, that leads to a lot of absurd notions about this here series of tubes, and that hasn’t been more apparent anywhere than this election’s understanding of how email and computers work.

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I’m not going to get into the ins and outs of Hilary Clinton’s use of a personal email server, but the latest round of FBI revelations have shown just how out-of-touch our political representatives really are. A bit over a week ago, FBI director James Comey sent a letter to congress, notifying them that the FBI had discovered emails that may be relevant to their Clinton investigation on Huma Abedin’s laptop. They didn’t know whether anything would come of it or how long it would take to make a determination, but it quickly became a talking point for her opposition.

Just yesterday, the FBI concluded their review of these emails and decided they didn’t change anything. That’s when Clinton’s opposition (starting with Donald Trump himself) launched the most idiotic line of criticism yet: The FBI couldn’t possibly have reviewed 650,000 emails in just 8 days. What was their logic? Eight days have 691,200 seconds, which would mean reviewing one email per second. That certainly would be a ludicrous thing for the FBI to suggest—if that were at all what is suggested by reviewing 650,000 emails in a 8 days.

First of all, the logic doesn’t even hold up without the help of computers. It’s not as though the FBI is one person named Effbeyeye. Put just ten people to work reading emails around the clock, and now you’re down to 65,000 emails each and ten seconds per email. Putting 20 people on it—because getting it sorted out before the election is kind of important after the mess you caused—cuts that to 32,500 and 20 seconds per email. If you’ve ever cleaned out an overfull inbox, you know it doesn’t exactly take twenty seconds to decide whether or not an email is junk. It’s still bonkers to suggest that the FBI would have read all those emails manually, but that absurdity was introduced by those who suggested that’s the only way to parse emails.

Again, anyone who’s ever used email—or a modern computer—knows this is nonsense. Any one of us could search that mountain of emails with to/from modifiers to quickly locate the ones that had any chance of being relevant, which would be way less than the total. We do it all the time in our personal email accounts. (At least I hope so. If not, that would certainly explain why some politicians seem to have so much against email this year.) These weren’t 650,000 of Clinton’s emails; they were Abedin’s emails, and only some of them were even worth reviewing after an initial search for relevance—unlike Clinton’s own emails, which certainly required a higher degree of manual perusal. Beyond that, they could further narrow down the data by having computers eliminate duplicate emails that the FBI had already reviewed in that initial investigation, which Edward Snowden agrees the government could do easily.

All of this could have been done relatively quickly, because the things computers can do these days are just so darn amazing. Manual review of any emails that were actually deemed relevant could easily have fit within the last 8 days. That’s not being political; that’s just how technology works, and anyone who says otherwise is either unbelievably ignorant or deliberately misleading. Neither is a great look.

(image via Cairo on Flickr)

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Dan Van Winkle
Dan Van Winkle (he) is an editor and manager who has been working in digital media since 2013, first at now-defunct <em>Geekosystem</em> (RIP), and then at <em>The Mary Sue</em> starting in 2014, specializing in gaming, science, and technology. Outside of his professional experience, he has been active in video game modding and development as a hobby for many years. He lives in North Carolina with Lisa Brown (his wife) and Liz Lemon (their dog), both of whom are the best, and you will regret challenging him at <em>Smash Bros.</em>

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