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Is Your Email Private?  No!

by Tim North, www.BetterWritingSkills.com

Consider the following three claims:

1. Your e-mail is not private.

2. Your e-mail might not be sent to the intended recipient.

3. Your e-mail can continue to exist even after you delete it.

The following article explains the truth of these alarming
statements and why you should be concerned if you're sending
confidential messages by e-mail.

1. The privacy problem

When you send an e-mail message from computer A to computer B it
passes through one or more machines (C, D, E, etc.) on its
journey. At each step along the way, an unscrupulous individual
with access to the intermediate machine has the opportunity to
read -- or even alter -- your e-mail message.

Within a private intranet (i.e. a company network), such privacy
violations could occur if:

  * IT staff with access to the mail server were unscrupulous;

  * unauthorized personnel had access to the mail server (e.g. if
    someone walked away from the server without logging out); or

  * security measures designed to keep hackers out of the mail
    server were insufficient or were not enforced rigorously.

When e-mail is sent over the Internet (a public network) the
risks become notably higher. If you send an e-mail message from
Sydney to New York it may pass through half-a-dozen machines on
its journey, *each* of which are subject to the risks mentioned
above. Thus the hazards accumulate with each extra machine that
the message passes through.

2. The identity problem

Another risk with e-mail is that you really don't know who will
receive it. This happens because some people choose to forward
(i.e. divert) their e-mail to another person or authorize another
person to read it for them. For example, if you send a message to
a senior colleague, remember that this person's e-mail might be
read by his or her secretary or stand-in. That can be awkward.

I know of a case where a manager sent an e-mail report to his CEO
describing a clerical officer's poor performance. The CEO had,
unfortunately, forwarded his e-mail to his acting secretary, who
that day happened to be (you guessed it) the clerical officer in
question. The clerical officer read the critical report, and all
manner of morale problems ensued.

3. The deletion problem

A further privacy issue surrounding e-mail involves what happens
when you delete an e-mail message. You might expect that deleting
an e-mail message removes it irretrievably. This is often not the
case. though.

In fact, it's a tough job to delete every copy of a piece of
e-mail. There are many ways that a "deleted" e-mail message might
still be accessible:

  1. Daily or weekly backups of the mail server may still contain
     messages that were subsequently deleted.

  2. When you delete an e-mail message, many e-mail programs
     simply move it to a trash folder, rather than actually
     deleting it. It's not until you select their "Empty the
     Trash" command (or similar) that the message is actually

  3. Even after you empty your trash folder, many network-based
     e-mail programs still archive deleted messages for a period
     of time before deleting them. During this archival period
     (30-90 days is typical) the message could be available to
     unscrupulous or unauthorized individuals.

  4. Even after a file is deleted from a computer's hard disk,
     the information is often still available until that portion
     of the disk's surface is overwritten with new information.
     During this period the deleted files could be available to
     unscrupulous individuals with physical access to the

  5. Even if you take steps to avoid all the potential problems
     above, remember that the e-mail message is probably still
     available on the PC of the person you sent it to (or who
     sent it to you).

4. Conclusions

The moral of this story is clear: e-mail is not a private medium.
Don't send messages by e-mail unless you're comfortable assuming
that they may be read by people other than the intended

So next time you go to press that "Send" button, ask yourself "Am
I okay with this being seen publicly?" If not, pick up the

You'll find many more helpful tips like these in Tim North's
much applauded range of e-books. FREE SAMPLE CHAPTERS are
available, and all books come with a money-back guarantee.

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This Page Last Updated:
 October 09, 2004