Is Your Email Really Private?
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.
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...
This article was posted by Bob Rankin on 14 Nov 2011
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Article information: AskBobRankin -- Is Your Email Really Private? (Posted: 14 Nov 2011)
Copyright © 2005 - Bob Rankin - All Rights Reserved