Certain things about the Internet are common sense:
If you want to communicate something sensitive, send
a private message through e-mail solely to your recipient
instead of posting it to a public online discussion
forum. And if you want to avoid potential problems
down the road with sensitive matters communicated through
e-mail, delete the message after reading it or ask
your recipient to do so.
Unfortunately, in both of these cases, what seems
to be common sense is wrong.
E-mail is as private as a postcard. Though it happens
relatively rarely, e-mail can be intercepted and read
by others en route.
E-mail encryption utility programs prevent this from
happening by ensuring that only your intended recipients
can read your messages and by verifying that it’s
you who has sent them. For some time now, the standard
has been Pretty Good Privacy, a program from PGP Corp.
(http://www.pgp.com) that provides excellent privacy
for sensitive e-mail.
The pay version automatically encrypts e-mail and
instant messages and lets you send “self-decrypting” messages
to those who don’t have the program. The free
version (available for personal, noncommercial use),
lets you manually encrypt and decrypt messages. You
can try the pay version for free for 30 days.
E-mail also endures. As with files on your hard drive,
when you delete an e-mail message, it’s not really
gone. One of the ways it can be retrieved is from tape
backups—your messages are recoverable months
or even years later. Sometimes, a court will require
this when the e-mail relates to a criminal matter or
a civil lawsuit.
In the past, some companies used the argument in
court that they don’t keep e-mail for longer
than a certain time. The courts, in general, no longer
buy this argument. In fact, they may assume that if
you don’t produce e-mail as requested, you’re
trying to hide something.
This changing attitude was dramatically exemplified
in May 2005 by the Morgan Stanley case brought by businessman
Ronald Perelman. A circuit court judge ruled against
the Wall Street firm in part because of its repeated
failure to provide requested e-mail.
Other court cases have also underscored the importance
of e-mail retention.
In June 2005, computer chip maker Advanced Micro
Devices, Inc., delivered subpoenas to nearly 40 PC
makers seeking past e-mails to help prove its contention
that rival chip maker Intel Corp. is trying to monopolize
Regulators are also getting in on the e-mail retention
act. Under the Sarbanes-Oxley corporate reform law,
public companies will be required to retain e-mail.
And if you deliberately delete e-mail with the intention
of obstructing a federal investigation, you may get
hit with a fine of up to $1 million and a prison term
of up to 20 years.
A changing legal and regulatory milieu creates new
market opportunities. Eager to cash in, software makers
and computer consultants have been announcing products
and services to help companies create and implement
e-mail retention policies.
“Most organizations don’t have a handle
on e-mail,” says Tom Politowski, president of
Waterford Technologies, Inc. (http://www.mailmeter.com),
the maker of one such software program. With its well-regarded
MailMeter Archive, Waterford targets small to mid-size
businesses that have from 50 to 5,000 e-mail in-boxes,
though Politowski says that organizations with as few
as five employees use it as well.
MailMeter Archive captures all e-mail that employees
send or receive and archives the messages in a database.
Along with making message retrieval easy and inexpensive,
the program also lets you analyze e-mail to detect
patterns, said Politowski
This can help you, for example, determine who’s
sending too many e-mail messages or too few, who’s
e-mailing an important client, or who might be using
e-mail inappropriately for sending jokes, music, porn,
or your customer list.
Politowski says that any organization, regardless
of its size, should create an e-mail policy that spells
out appropriate company use of e-mail. If you send
an e-mail to email@example.com, his company will
e-mail you back a sample policy that you’re free
Waterford Technologies sells other e-mail-archiving
programs along with MailMeter Archive. E-mail-archiving
programs from other companies that also warrant consideration
include those from Zantaz, Inc. (http://www.zantaz.com),
and EMC Corp. (http://www.emc.com).
E-mail has great utility, whether for business or
home use. But it’s no panacea. Like any communications
medium, it has its strengths and weaknesses. Sometimes
it makes more sense to pick up the phone or mail a
And if you want to communicate sensitive information
at very low risk, meet late at night in an underground
parking garage. After all, it worked for Deep Throat.
Reid Goldsborough is a syndicated columnist and author of the book Straight Talk About the Information Superhighway . He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or http://www.reidgoldsborough.com.