A recent discussion here on Westminster Patch got me to thinking about emails and privacy. There is something you may not realize: Your emails are not as private as you may think.
When you send an email it is stored on your computer, your Internet Service Provider's (ISP) server, and on the computer of the recipient. If that recipient chooses to forward your email, it is then stored on the computers of all those recipients. Unlike a physical letter, which can possibly be retrieved by the sender (assuming the recipient hasn’t made and distributed copies), once you press the send button, that communication is pretty much out there forever.
Under the law, all individuals are entitled to a certain amount of privacy in their communications. If a law enforcement official wants to search your file cabinet for a paper later, they have to get a warrant. If they wish to eavesdrop on your telephone conversations, they have to get a court order. But under the Patriot Act, emails lose their status as a protected communication in 180 days, which means that law enforcement officials can access your emails by a simple subpoena. Considering that emails can stay on a computer indefinitely, the email you carelessly tossed off three years ago and have long forgotten about can easily come back to haunt you.
Even if you don’t worry that your emails would be of enough interest for law enforcement agencies to bother accessing them, you may be more concerned about your employer. How private are your emails at work? It turns out—not very. A 2007 survey by the American Management Association found that two-thirds of employers monitor their employees' web site visits, three-fourths use technology to automatically monitor e-mail, and 28% of employers have fired workers for e-mail misuse. The courts have consistently found that an employee has no reasonable expectation of privacy to his or her email on the job. That slightly off-color joke you forwarded, or the “had-it-up-to-here” complaint about your unreasonable supervisor? Your employer may have read it. Your rule of thumb should be to not send or reply to any email at work that you would not want your boss to read. If your uncle insists on sending you those embarrassing stories, you may wish to make sure they are going to your home email address.
You have a more reasonable expectation of privacy from your home computer, but even then, it's not very difficult for others to read your emails. A competent hacker can probably access your old emails as fast as you can. While it may be (slightly) difficult for law enforcement officials to legally gain access to your home computer, it is not difficult at all for them to get your ISP to turn over your emails.
Not worried about your employer because you own your own business? Old emails can be used years later in a lawsuit. Even in a business setting, people tend to treat emails very casually, writing things in emails that they never would in professional correspondence, and sending them off quickly before thinking. That casual aside or little joke can easily be misconstrued and, as they say on the cop shows, can be used against you in a court of law.
You should treat every email as though it were a public document. Don't email things you don't want others to read. Someone recently told me that their company policy is “Give good news by email and bad news in person.” Good advice.