How Private Is Your Email?

Category: Email , Privacy

Do you ever get the paranoid feeling that someone is reading your email? If so, your suspicions probably focus on nefarious hackers or the government. But it's much more likely that an email voyeur is someone close to you. Your spouse, your boss, or a nosy parker who runs the computers at work may be peeking at your email messages...

Don't Blame Big Brother for Email Snooping

In a survey conducted by Avast, out of 13,000 respondents in the United States, 20 percent of men and 25 percent of women admitted to snooping on their partner’s smartphone. Some were just nosy, but another common reason for doing so was fear that their partner was cheating.

Parents often check the email or text messages of their children. Some believe that it's their duty and right to monitor their offspring's correspondence and acquaintances. Others succumb to temptation inadvertently, when a child leaves a phone or computer open with incriminating evidence right there on the screen.

Incriminating emails figure frequently in divorce cases these days. A Minnesota man who suspected his wife of cheating checked her email and found corroborating evidence. But much to his surprise, authorities charged Leon Walker with a felony for gaining unauthorized access to his wife's computer. It took two years for authorities to drop felony hacking charge against Walker. During the legal wrangling, Walker's wife admitted she had also read her husband’s text messages. Not surprisingly, the couple divorced.

Email Privacy at Work

What About Email Privacy at Work?

Coworkers have almost as much opportunity to read your email as do family members. It's not uncommon for workers to leave their email programs open while they are away from their desks. Anyone passing by your cubicle can read what's on the screen. And then there are the hidden email voyeurs that may be lurking in your company's IT department.

The manager of IT for the city government of Hoboken, NJ, was arrested for allegedly intercepting all email sent to or from the mayor's email address at City Hall. According to reports, the IT manager's original motivation for spying was to learn if his job was secure. But later, he began sharing some of the mayor's email with political opponents and leaking other emails to the press.

Such skullduggery by IT people in positions of trust is surprisingly common. In one survey of senior IT professionals by security firm Cyber-Ark, one-third reported that they had spied on coworkers' email. It's not clear how much of that monitoring was illegal. In the U.S., employers have very broad rights to monitor employees' electronic communications that are made or stored on company-owned facilities. A good rule of thumb is that if it happens on your computer at work, your employer probably has access to it. That goes for emails you send and receive, and also for any web surfing you do on the company dime.

You may believe that the government needs a warrant to search your email. Actually, under U.S. law, email older than 180 days is no longer considered private information, but an email service provider's database record. Only a subpoena is required to obtain access to old emails, not a search warrant showing of probable cause that a crime has been committed. The Email Privacy Act, an effort to fix the problem, has been brought forward by legislators several times since 2014, but has failed to pass.

In legal proceedings, the "discovery" process may require you or your ISP to supply your email records to authorities. I've heard it said that "if you don't want it published in the NY Times, don't put it in an email."

I don't want to scare you into thinking that your Internet service provider or webmail provider is poking around in your inbox. The vast majority - and certainly all of the large well-known providers - will have safeguards and audit trails built into their systems to prevent this sort of snooping by someone in an admin role. Even in the absence of that protection, if you deal with a large company that hosts thousands or millions of email customers, the likelihood that anyone would be interested in your personal communications is vanishingly small. Yes, often times "security by obscurity" does work rather well.

The best protection for email is encryption, but that has its drawbacks in efficiency. Lawyers, doctors, and other professionals who deal with highly sensitive data may resort to encrypted email. But more likely, they just won't commit any sensitive information to email at all. Private individuals rarely bother with encryption. If you use a web-based email service such as Gmail or Yahoo Mail, your messages are encrypted as they travel across the Internet, but not while they are stored in your online account. Some services such as ProtonMail do offer "end-to-end" encryption which ensures that your messages are encrypted before being stored, and additionally, the email provider does not have the key to access them.

If you are concerned about someone snooping in your email or text messages, here's my advice:

Guard your email password carefully; and never leave an email program open when you step away from your desk.
Use a PIN or passcode to protect your computer and/or smartphone from being accessed by others.
Turn on Two-Factor Authentication to protect yourself, even if your password is guessed, stolen or compromised in a data breach.

Do you have a story to share about email privacy? Post your comment or question below...

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Most recent comments on "How Private Is Your Email?"

Posted by:

03 Feb 2020

I totally agree with the point about "security by obscurity". A few years ago there was a big stink about the NSA scanning everybody's emails for key words that might indicated terrorist links. People were worried about the NSA snooping into their private lives, but that's ridiculous. They had to scan through literally billions of emails, and they could not care less about your or my personal life. I'm much more worried about Google and Facebook building a dossier on each of us that they can sell to advertisers or anybody else who wants to snoop on us.

Posted by:

03 Feb 2020

I used to work at a large telecom company and it was set as company policy that e-mail traffic would be subject to audit.Anyone who used company e-mail knew or should have known that their e-mail messages were subject to monitoring.It was standard practice that all employees be covered once a year in all company policies including internet usage.

Posted by:

03 Feb 2020

"I don't want to scare you into thinking that your Internet service provider or webmail provider is poking around in your inbox."

As another writer says frequently about most people "you are just not that interesting"
If you are a public figure or regularly violating felony laws, you MIGHT become "that interesting"

Posted by:

Paul S
03 Feb 2020

I treat my emails as though they are written on post cards. I tell others to do the same. I am disappointed in the number of businesses that would like to communicate highly personal or confidential information via unsecured email. Many banks and insurance companies have developed and use secure document transfer methods.

Posted by:

03 Feb 2020

I have had need to - or been invited to - use a dozen or so of the private "secure document transfer" systems/portals. I have never had a technical problem with those I chose to use.

However, all of them require a user agreement from me (the customer) before allowing access to the system. Some of the the agreements are truly awful, including one that would have me take responsibility for any and all mistakes made by not just the system, but also the business that was enticing me to use the system. Think my doctor wanting total absolution for any and all medical malpractice or mistakes they might make, just for the privilege of receiving their electronic communications. So buyer beware.

Posted by:

Bill Pfeifer
03 Feb 2020

When i check my email at an open WiFi, like Starbucks, i don't type my password, but it's obviously sent automatically in order to access my email there. Can someone else on the same WiFi read my email as it's retrieved, and can someone see my password as it's automatically sent?

Posted by:

Ernest Wilcox
03 Feb 2020

I have used email since the mid-nineteen-nineties when a dial-up connection was as good as it gets, and Windows 95 was the OS of the day. Before Windows 95 I had a DOS computer with a 96-baud fax-modem, but I cannot remember if I had an email client on Windows 3.1.

The single fact that has not changed from then to now is that email was never designed to be a secure form of communication.

Email was created by Ray Tomlinson in the 1960's, and evolved to the form we recognize today by about the mid-1970's. You can read the Wikipedia page at

During this time, the ARPANET, the predecessor of the Internet, was how different Universities and Scientific Organizations communicated and collaborated. Most of the people using the ARPANET knew or trusted each other, so privacy and security never entered the minds of the people who designed the software in use.

Remember, the ARPANET was not publicly accessible. It was a U. S. Government project intended to help de-centralize our communications centers and research facilities during the cold-war.

The email protocols (POP3 and SMTP) were created for the ARPANET, and not for an International Internet as we have today, so security was (and is) not a consideration.

Think of email like a note you used to pass in class when you were in school. Anyone who handles it, can read it. My point is that you should never put anything in an email you do not want to be freely or publicly available (such as your SSN, any of your passwords, your bank account info, etc.).



Posted by:

top squirrel
04 Feb 2020

It's a shame the Email Privacy Act has been blocked from being voted upon by the Senate, especially since the House has passed it several times, usually unanimously.
But why not use Email to help it along?
I just went on the Senate's website, found my Senator, examined his Committee assignments, found he was on the subcommittee on communications, technology and internet and sent him an email acknowledging his subcommittee assignments, noted that the Email Privacy Act has been passed, usually unanimously by the House, and asking what he is doing to help get the Email Privacy Act passed by the Senate.
If every reader of Bob's newsletter does this, who knows, we may have set forth an avalanche that cannot be stopped.
Nobody loses by having their Email privacy protected by law.
Except possibly some nosy bureaucrats who have no respect for the rights of the private citizen.

Posted by:

04 Feb 2020

@Bill Pfeifer

Email on an open wifi is fairly safe because most email providers now require a secure connection. You can verify this in your browser by seeing the HTTPS in the address bar. The login credentials and emails being sent are encrypted between your computer and the receiving server. Generally anyone ease dropping can only see the name of the site that you are connected to and the amount of data being sent. Anytime I want to connect to an open wifi I ask what the name or SSID of the WiFi is so I don't connect to a false or ad hoc connection setup by someone that is trying to steal data.

Posted by:

06 Feb 2020

I can't believe anyone still uses yahoo email.

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