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In mid-November, news broke that Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner were using their personal email accounts to conduct official government business and that the messages they were sending went through a private server.
You might recall arguments about a private email server taking place in a certain presidential campaign. During the 2016 campaign, now-President Donald Trump hammered Hillary Clinton on her use of private email servers and for using personal email to conduct official government business.
Ivanka Trump, an aide to her father, argued that her setup had “no equivalency” to Clinton’s.
“People who want to see it as the same, see it as the same,” she said in an interview with ABC News.
Trump further said that all of her emails are preserved in the White House archive and that none of her emails were deleted, unlike Clinton, who deleted personal messages sent while she was Secretary of State.
Shortly after the revelations, a tweet went viral showing that the private server through which Ivanka Trump’s emails were being filtered is located at or near Trump Tower.
The Daily Dot reached out to the researcher who initially found the information, who asked to be identified by his Twitter handle, @mrjhnsn, although the screenshot went viral when another user tweeted about it on Nov. 22.
In the tweet, @th3j35t3r seemingly draws the connection between Ivanka’s server and Hillary’s to point out the irony of the situation, but also to make the claim that, with this setup, Ivanka could theoretically do with her email what Hillary did—wipe them all.
Yikes! Turns out Ivanka's personal email account, was not just any old gmail or yahoo account but it was in fact hosted on a private server, in Trump Tower. I don't know about you, but something seems... familiar. pic.twitter.com/rtiHwAk5Je— JΞSŦΞR ✪ ΔCŦUΔL³³º¹ (@th3j35t3r) November 23, 2018
The screenshot is, essentially, a picture of the outward-facing characteristics of Ivanka Trump’s email server and web hosting service.
It shows that an IP address related to Ivanka Trump’s web hosting service (GoDaddy) is physically located in Scottsdale, Arizona. It also shows an IP address related to her email service that is located in New York City. The search service MaxMind shows a location for the server in Midtown, on 54th Street. However, another service, Shodan, shows that the server is located in lower Manhattan.
In an explanation to the Daily Dot, @mrjhnsn pointed out that all of Ivanka’s email would go through that server before going to her or going out into the world.
“The ONLY reasons I would think of to set it up that way, would be to ensure you can have full transparency into all emails and ‘control the server’ in case you need to delete evidence; and to provide a third party a window or tap into what is being communicated,” he said via Twitter DM.
“It’s possible that the Trumps think that maintaining their own server = security. When in reality, using managed services is more secure. I’d rather have teams of engineers, whose only job it is, maintaining the firewalls and networks wherever possible than try and manage it myself,” he added.
Dr. Matthew Green, a security specialist at Johns Hopkins University, agreed.
“It’s really crappy and embarrassing,” he said of the setup in a phone interview with the Daily Dot, noting how possibly insecure it is.
“Google is prepared to handle nation-state adversaries,” he added, explaining that huge companies like Microsoft and Google have the advanced technical capabilities to deal with potential attacks from enemy governments like Russia or China. If Ivanka’s White House-related email were going through her personal server before it went to its intended recipients, it could be vulnerable to a third party who wanted to take a peek.
A private email server where you can control who sees what’s going in and coming out might sound like a brilliant idea, but while Trump claims to be a billionaire who hires the best people, the reality is a private server setup requires a team of experts and constant vigilance (plus, lots of money) to ensure security.
But it doesn’t necessarily mean that the Trumps have the setup so they can mass-delete emails or open the door to foreign governments who might want to take a peek at what they have to say, explained Dr. Steven Bellovin, a professor of computer science at Columbia University.
“There may be other things that make you not want to run through Google,” he said. “These big companies look at emails,” he added, which you know if you’ve ever seen ads specifically targeted to you in your Gmail inbox.
But it’s worth noting that private servers require a search warrant if the government wants to look at the information stored there. That wouldn’t apply to Ivanka’s emails since she became an aide to her father if, as she claims, they are stored in the White House archives.
But emails sent prior to that—for example, emails sent during the campaign—could only be searched if the government obtained a warrant.
Ellen Ioanes is the FOIA reporter at the Daily Dot, where she covers U.S. politics. She is a graduate of Columbia Journalism School, and her work has appeared in the Guardian, the Center for Public Integrity, HuffPost India, and more.