Is Someone Snooping in Your Inbox?

Category: Email , Privacy

Do you ever get the 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... laws

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 the evidence right there on the screen.

Email Privacy

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.

Do you share the password to your phone, computer or smartphone with a spouse or other family member?

What About Email Privacy at Work?

What is a Nosy Parker, and what are the origins of this phrase? The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines it as "a person who is too interested in what other people are doing : a nosy person." This article from The Phrase Finder takes a deep dive into that question, and comes up with some interesting guesses.

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 "Is Someone Snooping in Your Inbox?"

Posted by:

30 Apr 2024

If you work for a large company such as AT&T,you should look at the e-mail messaging policies the company states and uses.When an annual work review is required,it is required that you acknowledge that you were covered and that you understand what is stated in the documents.You can easily print a copy of those policies if you need to.

Many companies state that any communications through their networks can be looked at or audited.That includes web browsing or internal chat as well.This includes not only company computers,but also your personal machines if they are on that network.

Posted by:

Bob K
30 Apr 2024

On the other side of the coin, when is too much security really too much?

My health insurance provider has a policy that all ALL email they send will be encrypted. I run here with Linux as my OS, and have the luxury of my own domain name. All business get an unique email address for me. So they send emails to that domain name, encrypted. They expect I have some Microsoft Office available for opening the attached encrypted messages. Sorry, I don't!

If I move the message to another box, it knows it isn't at the original destination, and won't open. These message also have time limit built in.

None of their methods for me to work around this have worked.

Posted by:

01 May 2024

Thank you, Bob, for another interesting article! In the not-too-distant past, I deleted an email account, which was "collecting" a lot of spam. When the email account is deleted, does this mean that all of those emails vanish? Just curious! Thank you!

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