E-mail and the Web

        The great illusion of e-mail is that your message appears instantly in the intended person’s mailbox with no danger of interception or invasion of privacy.  This is actually far from the truth, and more than one writer has claimed that you have more privacy on a postcard (Lewis, 1998).  The difference, of course, is that nobody keeps a copy of your postcard every time it changes hands en route to the recipient.  Your e-mail message, however, typically encounters at least two mail servers on its journey across the Internet (yours and the recipient’s).  Each server makes a copy of the message and stores it on back-up tapes in the server’s archives for as long as the server’s policy dictates (NPR, 1998).  Deleting an e-mail message from your computer has no effect on these archives; this is how Oliver North’s deleted e-mail came back to bite him during the Iran-Contra investigation (Lewis, 1998).  And Bill Gates, of all the people who should have known better, is paying now for e-mail messages he thought he deleted years ago (Idler, 1999).

        Chances are the government is not interested in reading your e-mail.  But what about your employer?  An American Management Association survey recently found that 27 percent of companies monitor their workers’ e-mail, up from 20.2 percent last year (Seglin, 1999). Corporate managers have their choice of several software tools to help them monitor e-mail, and of those who don’t have it now, 21 percent plan to install it next year (Deckmyn, 1999).  International Data Corp. expects 80 percent of large companies to be using such software by 2001 (Shiver, 1999).  According to a Computerworld survey, most of these companies only check e-mail when an irregularity appears, while slightly over one third conduct random checks.  This survey included a company director who used MIMEsweeper software and found that 30 percent of the e-mail messages on his company’s network were not work related (Deckmyn, 1999).  Personally, I’m shocked that as much as 70 percent of e-mail anywhere is actually serious.

        Your employer is not legally required to inform you whether your e-mail is being monitored.  On October 10, 1999, California Governor Gray Davis vetoed a bill that would have made it a misdemeanor to monitor e-mail without first notifying the employee.  Davis said the bill placed “unnecessary and complicating obligations” on employers (Shiver, 1999).  Also keep in mind that even if your employer does not officially monitor e-mail – secretly or openly – your system administrator and anyone with moderate hacking skills is still capable of reading the contents of your mailbox at any time (NPR, 1998; Stroh, 1999).

        Of course, you could always sign up for one of the free e-mail accounts offered by hundreds of companies on the Internet.  Using a Web-based e-mail account is an easy way to avoid leaving copies of your messages where your employer can read them.  But be careful when choosing one.  Virtually all free e-mail services are paid for by advertising and you’ll probably make yourself even more of a marketing target (on- and offline) if you sign up for one (Berselli, 1998).  For example, take a look at the free e-mail account offered by U.S. West at http://www.uswestmail.net/.  If you scroll down to the bottom of the page, the very last words you’ll read are a link to their Privacy Statement.  Be sure to read their statement about Consent to Monitoring while you’re there, at http://www.uswest.com/siteincludes/legal/index.html#Consent.

        Most Web-based e-mail providers now post their privacy policies on the Web.  GeoCities agreed to post theirs after the Federal Trade Commission caught them selling personal information about their customers to outside marketers.  GeoCities had collected information such as income, education, marital status, occupation, and personal interests as part of the registration process, with the explicit assurance that they would not sell the data (Berselli, 1998; McGrath, 1999).

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Computers and the Web                                                                                 Last updated December 8, 1999
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