Is Your Email Really Private?

Category: Email , Privacy

If you ever get the paranoid feeling that someone is reading your email, 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 nosey parker who runs the computers at work may be peeking at your email...

Don't Blame Big Brother for Email Snooping

In a survey conducted by Retrovo Gadgetology one-third of respondents admitted to secretly checking the email or cell phone records of their significant others. Among younger people, 47 per cent admitted to such invasions of privacy.

Parents often check the email 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 an email program open with incriminating evidence right there in the reading pane.

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 him with a felony for gaining unauthorized access to a computer. Betrayal has its consequences, sometimes.
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 a 2008 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. 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. But you should be careful what you say in email, because it may not be as private as you think. Guard your email password carefully; and never leave an email program open when you step away from your desk.

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 Your Email Really Private?"

Posted by:

14 Nov 2011

the answer is NO - never write anything you would not want reviewed!

Posted by:

14 Nov 2011

Now, I am speaking for private, home emails. My basic response is no. First of all, email goes through several channels, just to get to you. The best that you can do is provide yourself, with a good Anti-Virus Program, AVG or avast! or BitDefender, and a good SPAM Filter Program, like MailWasher or SpamBuster or SPAM Assassin.

As for emails within a corporation or a company or the military, that's a whole different ballgame! Employees must realize, right away, that the emails within these institutes, belongs to the said institute. Organizational emails are not private and should not be used for private means. In a company or corporate or military setting, emails are used for internal purposes and many times, are reporting or commenting on, 'sensitive' matters concerning their dealings.

I want to add one observation. I have read a lot about 'key loggers' being used, within the company or corporation or military structure. Lots of comments, both pro and con, in regarding this practice. I personally think, that the use of 'key loggers' by company or corporation or military in extremely sensitive settings, are warranted. They have a 'right' to protect their products, especially products that are in development stages.

Posted by:

14 Nov 2011

I used to teach clinicians how to use computer systems, including email. I always told them to treat email like a postcard. For the most part, no one reads your postcards, but they can. The same goes for email.

Posted by:

Graham Kongkori
14 Nov 2011

how do i know that someone is spying on my inbox? will there be any sign of notification?

Posted by:

14 Nov 2011

We could really use an article about "How to keep your emails private & secure in a fairly simple way". I don't like the idea of Gov't snoops checking on my emails!

Posted by:

Lee McIntyre
15 Nov 2011

I remember learning, back when e-mail was a novelty, that "E-mail is as private as a postcard." Back then, the reference was to the possibility that some nefarious hacker (a term that hadn't even come into general usage yet) might read your mail, not to mention your spouse, boss, or cubicle-mate.

I have seen nothing in the 20 or 30 years since then to make me want to change my mind.

Posted by:

15 Nov 2011

I don't believe email is private. Ever noticed how "targeted" the ads are the come with gmail? Targeted exactly to the content of the email you have open at the time?

Posted by:

howard rutiezer
15 Nov 2011

What about services like free and the paid for services like and others?

I apparently did something on my computer that runs Ubuntu 10.04 using Firefox 7.0.1 that allowed some program or website to steal all contacts in my yahoo address book. What would prevent this? Is this a problem with Firefox? I could use Google Chrome? Would it make a difference?

Posted by:

18 Nov 2011

I start with the assumption that nothing I do on the intarwebz is private. Even if I assume that all who read my internet mumblings get permission from someone in a legal fashion, I have no way of knowing who or what or when. Email can be encrypted, but unless you're dealing with highly sensitive private information (medical, legal, financial), encryption isn't worth the pain. If I need to send something secure via email, I'll log on to two different secure (https) web email services, sometimes three, and send the message in pieces. The only point of congruence is on the recipient's email server. If I *really* need security, I'll send it via two secure email services to two email services of the recipient. And the ultimate in paranoid, if I'm sending username and passwords, username and related login information goes via email, and password is a cellfone text message. All of which does no good if the person at the other end isn't security paranoid... I mean, security conscious. So I assume everything I type on the web will be read by an (in)appropriate someone, somewhere, some day. For the record, there's quite a bit of stuff out there that would cause me a great deal of embarrassment should it fall into inappropriate hands. But it's my embarrassment, not someone else's private information.

Posted by:

Roland Lindgren
25 Nov 2011

There is a snoopy person in my Bldg who I think wants to know my Banking business. Is there any possible way that he could access my email ID or my computer? Is there any technology available that could be used for this purpose?

EDITOR'S NOTE: If you use a strong password, and you don't leave your computer unattended while logged in, you should be safe.

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