We all use email, and in most cases we have had an email address for many years. My Hotmail (no longer called Hotmail) has been with me now since 1995, and my Google mail account has been around since 2000. Email has developed into the medium of choice, and an email can now be considered a legal document. We treat it as a vehicle for private correspondence. But one thing is constantly forgotten. Anything that uses the internet to transmit the written word is a broadcast medium—including email.
For some reason, we all have the implicit belief that whatever we write in an email is personal and confidential. We are quite happy to put a disclaimer on the bottom of our email, but this only protects us from the honest people.
People in the legal and government space consider an email a legal document. Whatever is written between two parties is legal and binding. In the space where I work, I consider this incorrect. Before treating email as reliable or confidential, we need to ask ourselves three things.
Could it be someone else?
It is possible, even with low-level tools, to impersonate a person’s email address. We have seen it for the last 10 years. Spammers and virus writers use it to broadcast millions of emails all over the internet every day. These emails appear to come from your friend, when most of the time they are coming from the bad guys. If you have access to the domain space then it is even easier to impersonate other people. That is why these zone files are protected so heavily!
What can you do with your email?
In most cases there is no restriction on what you can do with an email. In a number of places, Microsoft’s Rights Management for instance, you can restrict an email to not being forwarded, copied or printed, but most of us are not concerned about that. Don't lose sight of how easy it is to share what you write. I can take a whole conversation—maybe 6 or 7 emails—and at any point BCC it to a colleague. If you were corresponding with me, you would never know it had happened—or who else was reading what you wrote.
Who else knows about it?
It may be in my best interest to protect my conversation with someone, but what happens when it's not? An email can be broadcast to a huge number of people with very little input from the person sending it out. Before hitting “send,” consider if there's anyone out there whom you wouldn't want to see an email's contents. An indiscreet missive can do a large amount of damage to a person’s reputation—or, even worse, your business's reputation.
We are becoming more and more lackadaisical in our attitude to personal communication. The younger generations do not consider their reputation as much as we older people do. In the old days, reputation, personal and business, was everything. If your reputation was tarnished, you better have a solution fast or you were destined for skid row.
Today’s younger generation do not consider reputation important. If you're in your 20s or 30s, you may not consider threats to your reputation a serious danger. But think again. Thanks to instant communication, a few indiscreet words can do far more damage than they could when I was growing up.
What to do? Fortunately, there's a fairly simple solution. By considering email a broadcast medium and being very aware of what you (or your correspondents) write, you protect yourself. If it is confidential, do not put it in an email, on a web page or in a social media comment. The world can see it and, in some cases, use it against you. If you want to keep it confidential, write a letter.