How Private Is Your Inbox?

Category: Email

Do you ever get a creepy feeling that someone, somewhere is reading your email? If so, your suspicions probably focus on nefarious hackers on the dark web, or maybe shadowy figures in 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. Read on...

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. (The percentages are likely much higher; those are just the ones honest enough to admit it.) 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.

Here's another fact that may surprise you. 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.
Have a short timeout setting, after which your device locks automatically.
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 Inbox?"

Posted by:

18 Jul 2022

Several years ago I discovered my emails were being read by someone at the company that hosted the webmail service I was using.

Email should never be considered private.

Posted by:

18 Jul 2022

During any annual review of company policies that I did while I was employed by my old firm,it was stated in writing that any company e-mail sent or received by company computers were subject to review or audit.That was clear enough to me,so I was careful with any communications I had with anybody.

Any company computer I worked on had a screen timer,so if you left your machine logged in,the screen would go into lock mode after 10 minutes or so. You had to re-enter your password to get back to a regular screen.The lock mode could not be bypassed as it was set by the company IT department.

Posted by:

Nigel A
18 Jul 2022

I have long treated email, phone calls and text messages as public. So I don't say/write anything that I wouldn't want a third party to know.

Posted by:

18 Jul 2022

This applies to schools, too. Anything done with their devices and/or on their network is subject to monitoring.

Posted by:

Brian B
18 Jul 2022

All sounds like good arguments for resurrecting the old Fax machine, or writing a letter.

Posted by:

18 Jul 2022

Thank you for all that you do for us BobRankin,
Some may opine "I have nothing to hide!" and others may shrug their shoulders about e-mail warrants and subpoenas. I qualify for both types but still want to have the fuzzy feeling like online personal data should have due diligence for for both privacy and security concerns. I did a simple search for the words "fastmail +alternatives" and after reading the top 4 articles; I think I will stick with fastmail which I've had for over 2 decades. I've had e-mail addresses from ISPs, yahoo, hotmail, outlook, gmail, proton but nothing compares for me.

Posted by:

19 Jul 2022

Remember, even if you access your work email from home, whoever sets up the email addresses can log into your account and read all of your incoming, sent and saved emails.

As a GM, I would regularly log in to company email accounts used by the employees e. g., admin@ accounts@ etc to monitor what was going on and how they were communicating.

Even though they were told of this during onboarding, it's surprising how many people forgot about it and sent embarrassing, slanderous, incriminating or just plain juicy emails using the work email account.!

Posted by:

19 Jul 2022

Phil, I wouldn't be proud of it.

Posted by:

Chris Stanton
21 Jul 2022

Over the years I learned that the most distrustful people at work are the IT ones; playing nasty games with employees - reading emails, deleting work file etc. Its because of people like Phil who make worklife difficult. Thanks to Stasi Phil.

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