THE LIFE OF AN EMAIL

What is the life of an email in the business environment? It's a question without a clear-cut answer, and that fact alone should make you pause the next time you send a personal email from work, particularly if it contains private or confidential information. Many experts recommend that you use an internet-based email account (such as Yahoo, Hot Mail or the new G-Mail from Google) for your personal email traffic instead of your office account. However, both offer a similar dilemma--the necessary evil of archived data and a surrendering of your right to privacy under certain circumstances.

As far as corporate email systems are concerned, published reports indicate they are growing at a rate of 35% a year. Corporate IT departments spend almost half of their annual budget dealing with the back-up, storage and search demands of massive email archives and often find themselves struggling to understand the legal requirements that define how much of their corporate communication must be archived, and for how long. Rather than risk being accused of destroying incriminating emails and other documentation, everything is backed up and archived. Nightly data backup is the key point in understanding what happens to that private email that you've sent to your significant other via your employer's email server. It will become a part of your company's archived data, and, by law, you will have lost all rights to it. According to a recent article in Computer Technology Review, recent court cases have established that First Amendment rights do not apply to personal emails sent from corporate accounts.

Personal email accounts such as those offered by Yahoo, Hot Mail and G-Mail are safer to use, although there are still some privacy concerns. The first thing to understand is that all non-encrypted email today is scanned. For the most part, this process helps block spam, but this very same technology can be used to search email content for other key words as well, particularly as it relates to a potential terror alert by the Department of Homeland Security. A policy paper by the Center for Democracy and Technology reminds us that "under current statutory and case law, any records stored on the server of a third party--documents, calendars, email- -do not enjoy the same privacy protection as materials stored in one's own home or on one's hard drive." (CDT Policy Post 10.06 April 12, 2004)

Finally, thanks to a recent Federal Appeals Court decision in United States v. Councilman, the court noted that an email provider does not violate federal wiretap laws when it opens emails to its customers and uses them for its own competitive business purposes. Google's G-Mail is the most obvious example of this; scanning the content of each email sent via its servers, it then places subtle commercial ads adjacent to the text of the message before delivering the email to its recipient. The Councilman decision also reiterated the right of ISPs to read email while it's in storage with them, and use that email, without notice or consent, for their own business purposes.

A bi-partisan bill entitled HR 4956 was introduced to the U.S. House of Representatives last year that would increase consumer privacy rights regarding email. That bill is currently sitting with the House Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism and Homeland Security, waiting to be brought up for review and discussion. Until then, if you're concerned about keeping your private communications private, there are some email encryption services available on the Internet today. Check out the free and paid services of HushMail (
www.hushmail.com) and ZipLip (www.ziplip.com) for starters. That way, even if your email is archived by your company or your ISP, its contents will be protected.

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Posted 02-21-2005 9:03 PM by Doug Casey