New Blog: How Private Are Your Emails?

We tend to think of our emails as private communications, but how private are they really? It turns out--not very.

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.

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Neil Ridgely January 13, 2012 at 06:25 PM
An excellent blog on this important subject with excellent advice Kathy. Thanks,
Kathy January 13, 2012 at 06:40 PM
Thanks--this was my first blog--good to know someone read it!
Jeannine Morber January 13, 2012 at 08:00 PM
I read it too Kathy! Excellent advice - thank you. Just tweeted it....:)
Buck Harmon January 14, 2012 at 03:59 PM
Have you used one of those certified email services?
Judith M. Smith January 15, 2012 at 01:47 AM
I think that the current BOC should read this and understand the implications of it even if they try to avoid what they wish to conceal...
Jane January 18, 2012 at 02:34 PM
I have one commissioner's private home number, given to me by that commissioner. Therefore, one can no longer obtain my private email address under PIA. End of problem.
Jean Burgess January 18, 2012 at 03:20 PM
Many valid and important points, Kathleen. Interesting to have the legal aspects reinforced. As an IT provider, we often have to remind small business owners of many of these issues. Thanks. Don McCombie and Jean Burgess, NoWorriesIT
Judith M. Smith January 19, 2012 at 01:52 AM
This kind of comment does not serve Democracy well......whether it is a reality or not, the rest of us would prefer to believe in our souls that private access is not a necessary part of a successful government...like the bigger issue of "Citizens United" and the over-the-top purchase of government.. It makes our elected officials whores...
Kathy January 19, 2012 at 02:10 AM
That was very nice of him/her, but it hardly solves the problem. Suppose you wish to contact one of the other commissioners--are they all going to give you their private home number? Are they going to give their numbers out to everyone? If a commissioner were to start getting calls at home from large numbers of constituents, I suspect they would soon get an unlisted number. I don't think the problem is solved by citizens refraining from contacting their elected officials.
Jane January 19, 2012 at 04:29 AM
I would call their office and make an appointment. Our commissioners are more open than most think...especially those on here calling them 'whores'. I refuse to lose the little privacy I still have. Privacy is a thing of the past. Just waiting for the videocams in my home.
Jane January 19, 2012 at 04:32 AM
P.S. Ms. Rus, your blog just reinforces what I already know about the lack of privacy....or spying, if you will. Your info was a very good reminder of this. Do I trust ANY government? Hell, no! So just call me paranoid then, like the majority of American citizens.
Buck Harmon January 19, 2012 at 03:03 PM
Kathy.. you have delivered bad news over the internet... will good news come in person..?
Judith M. Smith January 19, 2012 at 03:27 PM
Jane...you missed the point that I was trying to make by your mention of "private access" by your having a private home telephone number. That public claim of a private relationship is an example of why the general public feels left out of the process. I was not calling any one elected official a "whore" .. and going to the BOC meetings face-to-face is more important in my opinion than the backdoor approach too many use in every aspect of politics. Money and access has corrupted our democracy...therefore the term "whore." I do not want to be the pimp that makes the process worse...
Jane January 19, 2012 at 04:05 PM
Not everyone can attend the BOC meetings, some of which are held during the weekdays. Hence another way to contact him/her/them. Call or make an appointment. After all, isn't this what was done long before email? It still works, as do carrier pigeons, haha.
Judith M. Smith January 19, 2012 at 04:14 PM
The subtlety eludes you...
Jane January 19, 2012 at 04:51 PM
The truth eludes you. Sometimes the old ways are still the best for keeping your private life PRIVATE. I'm sure Ms. Rus would agree. My son works part-time at a local law firm. A major part of his job is shredding legal documents. One day he did 18 bags full. This is a fairly new concept that's certainly better than what was done back in the day, like simply tearing documents up and tossing them in the trash. Attorneys are well aware of the importance of privacy, as are banks, etc. My bank not only shreds documents, but the dumpster they go in is locked. Remember, the issue here is privacy...emails are NOT private. Actually, nothing in cyberworld is private....any website can be hacked into and any IT person can tell you that. The comments here are NOT private, hence the use of anonymous handles like mine.
Judith M. Smith January 19, 2012 at 07:22 PM
you have lost sight of the original discussion about the BOC redacting names and addresses...we are private citizens...not elected officials doing business on our behest and accountable to the taxpayers who pay them...it is imperative that there be a "trail" be it electronic or paper to have our government "open" to review. As long as there is a legal trail through the Freedom of Information Act to be able to track issues...and my "employees"...but being told that if I don't like it go ahead and sue really irks me. Huge difference in this apples and orange issue...
Jane January 20, 2012 at 04:18 AM
Indeed, I have NOT lost sight. Just pointing out that there are many ways around FIA. I use them.
Judith M. Smith January 20, 2012 at 02:51 PM
You have made my point ...
Buck Harmon January 20, 2012 at 03:05 PM
I seek a place where private matters...don't really matter all that much...
Jane January 20, 2012 at 07:56 PM
Happy to hear that, Judy, and hope I made your day. I'd like to use FIA on the POTUS and others. From the top on down.


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