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Just Like Clinton: How Often Americans Conduct Business Using Their Personal Emails

Is the former Secretary of State really that different from the rest of us?
Hillary Rodham Clinton. (Photo: JStone/Shutterstock)

Hillary Rodham Clinton. (Photo: JStone/Shutterstock)

Late in the day Monday, the New York Times reported Hillary Rodham Clinton used a personal email address to send business emails while working as the United States’ Secretary of State. That, of course, goes against government regulations. Government business emails are supposed to go through a government email account, so that the U.S. National Archives can save them and make them part of the public record. As long as they’re not classified, the emails that American politicians send are supposed to be available for the American public to read. (A spokesman for Clinton told the Times that Clinton was following the “letter and spirit of the rules” by handing over emails when the State Department asked her to.)

But is Clinton that different from other politicians? Or the rest of us, for that matter? How often do Americans conduct business using their personal emails?

Besides Clinton, a few American politicians have sent business emails in their personal accounts. Jeb Bush, for one, used extensively while he was governor of Florida, the Washington Post reports. Florida law, however, allows for that; Bush only had to turn over his business emails to the public record, which he has.

Former Secretary of State Colin Powell also regularly used his personal address for government emails, the New York Times reports, but this latest email rule hadn't come into effect during his time in office.

In 2002, a survey found one in three local officials sent all their work emails from a personal account, as Clinton did.

Lawmakers in charge of smaller regions than Powell and Bush are often personal-email enthusiasts. In 2002, the Pew Research Center surveyed local politicians about their email use. One in three local officials sent all their work emails from a personal account, as Clinton did, but this survey was conducted more than a decade ago.

Officials in larger cities, the survey found, were more likely to send work emails exclusively using their work accounts. So perhaps some smaller governments didn’t have email accounts to give out at the time. Still, the proportion of officials who used a combination of personal and work accounts to send governmental emails was the same for large and small cities—about 37 percent.

As for regular American workers, researchers have conducted many studies about how often people check their personal emails at work and their business emails at home. Both happen frequently. We didn’t find any studies about how often business folks send business emails using a personal account, to which their companies would not have access. In general, companies don’t consider the practice above board, as the president of an IT consulting firm told CNN. So it might be that such practices would be difficult to study: It would require sneaky workers to turn over the contents of their personal accounts to researchers.