Why an Email Hack Feels So Personal

It’s like losing a piece of your digital self.

Mario Anzuoni / Reuters

One June morning, my virtual world ended.

My web searches had been going oddly for days. When I entered a common phrase I saw only six results, and those interspersed with Asian characters. Googling a friend took me not to his website, as usual, but to an obscure article he’d published years before. Googling “France” didn’t lead me to the Wikipedia entry for the country or to the homepage of the French Government Tourist Office; it led to reviews of a movie called France.

A few days later, my computer asked if I was sure I wanted to open the document I had just downloaded from the Internet. I hadn’t downloaded anything. “No,” I clicked. And the next morning, a logoff notice materialized in front of my email: “We’ve detected suspicious activity on your Google account.”

I had no idea what that might mean, and so, with all the paranoia of the technological know-nothing, I assumed the worst: My computer had a virus, hackers had broken into my email, and I was unintentionally subsidizing a drug empire in Colombia. Like a Job of the electronic age, I wondered why such afflictions had rained down upon me—so many, and all at once.

I raced to the Apple Store, but the attending “Genius” was unimpressed. “Just looks like somebody got into your Google account,” he said, leaning nonchalantly against the counter. “Super common.” Most hackers didn’t do anything too bad, he added. Only the most nefarious would, for instance, outright delete an email account.

On the subway ride home—zipping open my bag every now and again, just to make sure my laptop was still there—I pondered the intensity of my disquiet. I had seen computers freeze and fail, yet I had always taken for granted the permanence of my email account. Even when computers break, email survives: If computers are like bodies, email is the soul.

* * *

I opened a Gmail account after graduating from college in 2006, and by the time I was hacked, I was hooked. Each morning I would get out of bed, turn on my laptop, and revel in the pleasures of a fresh inbox, its three tiers of emails stacked like the layers of a wedding cake. On top sat a slab of unread emails, subject lines bold; beneath, the already-opened emails that required reply; below those, a sturdy base of everything else: invitations to plays starring friends I couldn’t remember meeting; a note from a calendar function I never used, telling me I had nothing scheduled today; an oft-repeated inquiry from LinkedIn, asking plaintively if I knew the same three people.

Down the left-hand side of the screen ran my list of chat contacts, from Abraham to Zachary. Collectively, they constituted that type of group one often observes but rarely addresses, like the crowd that gathers each morning to await the 9:20 bus near my apartment. We might not know where our chat contacts are, or even who they are. All we know is that they, too, are checking their email right now. And in that sense, they are fellow travelers.

Some might consider such fellowship shallow, but in the loneliest moments, its necessity can become clear. Three years ago, I spent an ill-conceived month cat-sitting for an acquaintance in Buenos Aires, where I was friendless except for the cats. The apartment’s wireless network (named “Olive,” after one of the cats) cut out regularly, much as Olive herself threatened to do whenever I opened the door. Each time it vanished, I panicked, incessantly clicked “reload,” and almost wept with relief when my Gmail page refreshed, usually revealing no new messages. I felt as though, after wandering unknown streets, I had found my home again. And email is like a home—or, more accurately, a tent, a home we pitch wherever we move.

The comfort of email, I had come to realize, isn’t just in the actual notes; it’s also in the familiarities of the email page itself. Sometimes, when I feel perplexed, I let my eyes roam up and down my email window. I draw solace from the listed names, the ordered times, the testimony to recent history: to my people, their words, the chatter of my life.

I draw an improbable solace from my own chatter, too—both thoughts I’ve shared and those I haven’t. Perhaps the juiciest part of any email account is the drafts folder, that electronic id brimming with unfunny quips, unaskable questions, and (in my case, at least) unstated declarations of love. All lie forgotten until a search for some mundane term calls them up again. And at such moments, I recognize that my email knows me better than I do, that it is—as Wuthering Heights’s Catherine says of Heathcliff—“more myself than I am.”

* * *

The outbox, too, has its pleasures. On occasion I find myself digging into my sent mail with gusto, rereading missives I have fired off just hours before.

Do I do this because I’m so fascinating? Much the opposite. It’s strangely easy to forget, over the course of a single day, what exactly I’ve been doing, where I’ve gone, what I’ve worried or rejoiced over. But by following my electronic trail, I can connect the dots of my moments into logical, continuous arcs. My email records, virtual as they are, make me feel more solid.

This need for reminders isn’t just a product of our distracted age; we’ve long been good at forgetting ourselves. One of my favorite accounts of emotional amnesia appears in Marcel Proust’s Swann’s Way: The young narrator takes a gleeful walk near his home, but when he realizes he won’t get to say goodnight to his mother, his mood plunges so low that he wishes he were dead. This misery will last till the next day, when he will joyfully leap out of bed “with no thought of the fact that evening must return, and with it the hour when I must leave my mother.”

Happiness and anguish, he goes on, “reigned alternately in my mind … going so far as to divide every day between them, each one returning to dispossess the other with the regularity of a fever and ague: contiguous, and yet so foreign to one another, so devoid of means of communication, that I could no longer understand, or even picture to myself, in one state what I had desired or dreaded or even done in the other.”

We have always been multiple people in the course of a single day, and email serves as a link between those many selves. In a way, revisiting our noontime emails at nightfall can feel like reading words by someone else.

And it’s that someone else whom hackers threaten: our older selves, our other minds, and a way to return to them.

* * *

Back home from the Apple Store that June, once I had convinced myself that no one was logging my keystrokes or tapping my phone, I answered Gmail’s security questions, entered the code Google sent my phone, and clicked “sign in.” The computer paused. In that pause, my digital life flashed before my eyes.

And then it all materialized onscreen. On top, my unread emails. In the middle, my opened emails. Below, the invitations to plays I still didn’t plan to attend, the notes from the calendar function I still didn’t use, and the inquiries from LinkedIn, still plaintive. My chat buddies, all in a row, seemingly unaware of what they had survived.

Yet I couldn’t relate to this familiar world in quite the same way as I had before. Each time I signed in, I worried the password would fail; each time I refreshed, I wondered if I’d get logged out. The symbol of permanence no longer seemed permanent. Instead, it seemed as transient as the need to draft a love note I’d later forget about. Or the person who wrote that note, with her messier hair and dingier apartment and entry-level job—someone even the best search terms can never truly call back.