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COLUMNISTS: OFFLINE: Diplomatic e-bag

Author: Rene Beekman Date: Fri, May 30 2008 818 Views
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Recently the Bulgarian Foreign Ministry issued a statement, advising its citizens to refrain temporarily from travelling to Lebanon. The government statement advised Bulgarian citizens already in the country to contact its embassy in Beirut. Among the contact details given was an e-mail address, a Yahoo! e-mail address.

Why on earth would an embassy, any embassy, use a free, web-based e-mail account for its official correspondence?

A quick look at the website of the Foreign Ministry listed 71 embassies. This does not include the permanent representations, consulates general, consulates, diplomatic bureaus and honorary consuls. Of these 71 embassies listed on the ministry website, it turns out, 12 have Yahoo! e-mail addresses, while four use the Bulgarian, free, web-based e-mail service ABV.

Translated to the world of atoms, the use of these services is tantamount to sending diplomatic correspondence written on the back-side of a postcard instead of in diplomatic bags.

The 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations grants special status to diplomatic bags, allowing countries to send anything they want with diplomatic immunity from search or seizure. The carrier of these bags is also extended special immunity.

A diplomatic bag does not need to be a real bag and there are no limitations to its size or shape; it is more of a concept than an object.

While e-mail can hardly be "clearly labelled as diplomatic bag", as required in the world of atoms, there is no reason why embassies would not treat it with the same expectations to immunity and security.

If sending diplomatic correspondence on the backside of postcards does not sound like a good idea, how about storing these cards in a convenient stack in someone else's house? This is precisely what using free, web-based e-mail accounts amounts to.

Besides the 16 embassies that use free, web-based e-mail accounts, another 41 use e-mail accounts with local hosting providers in the countries where the embassies are based.

This is worse than just leaving your correspondence on the back of postcards at someone else's house, as none of these owners abide by Bulgarian law.

Based on the above, it is safe to say that the vast majority of electronic correspondence of Bulgarian embassies uses services that are not under the control of the embassy or the ministry, and is stored on computer networks that are neither owned nor under control of the embassy or the ministry. Where state administration goes out of its way to secure unsafe communication channels in the world of atoms through the use of diplomatic bags, its electronic correspondence is pretty much openly available to anyone. Of course the Bulgarian embassy is hardly an exception, but rather an example of a general attitude.

One can only speculate as to why embassies seemingly care so little about the security and immunity of their electronic correspondence. The most innocent explanation would be ignorance about the electronic medium, another possible explanation would be that embassies really do not have any electronic correspondence worth securing and that all relevant correspondence still takes place on paper exclusively, e-government has not reached embassy level just yet.

If the first is the case, we can hardly begin to imagine what this means for control of access to classified information elsewhere in state administration.

The latter would help explain why Bulgaria in a recent networked readiness report from the World Economic Forum was outranked by Azerbaijan, El Salvador and Uruguay.

The most interesting question however remains that of the popularity of Yahoo!'s e-mail services. Does this mean that even embassy staff is on to the spammer-image that a hotmail account brings with it, but is not hip enough for a gmail account?

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