Once you hit send, privacy is gone

Golfer Tiger Woods’s text messages to one of his mistresses, Joslyn James, were posted on her website. Golfer Tiger Woods’s text messages to one of his mistresses, Joslyn James, were posted on her website. (William West/AFP/Getty Images)
By Joseph P. Kahn
Globe Staff / November 15, 2010

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The e-mail was clearly misguided in its interpretation of intellectual-property rights and the Internet. It was also dismissive, unapologetic, and, if made public, potentially far more embarrassing to sender than recipient.

If? Try when.

A recent testy e-mail from Cooks Source managing editor Judith Griggs to freelance writer and blogger Monica Gaudio read, in part, “you should be happy we didn’t just ‘lift’ your whole article and put someone else’s name on it!’’ Gaudio posted the e-mail online, and it went viral. When it did, one question about Griggs’s judgment eclipsed all others: How could anyone assume a communication like that would remain private?

With minor variations, the same could be asked of others making news recently with their private-made-public communications, ones that quickly spread to social-media websites like Facebook and Twitter, to gossip sites like Gawker and Deadspin, and to mainstream media sites like Poynter Online — to the chagrin of those who composed them.

Tucker Carlson, who edits The Daily Caller, a political-journalism website, posed as suspended MSNBC host Keith Olbermann in e-mails to a Philadelphia columnist last week, then claimed he did not expect that his prank e-mails would be published.

Campaign staffers for gubernatorial candidate Tim Cahill, the state treasurer, e-mailed state Lottery officials last summer urging them to launch a taxpayer-funded ad campaign likely to benefit him.

Harvard Law School student Stephanie Grace’s e-mail to friends about affirmative action and race touched off a furor on the Harvard campus this year.

The NFL is investigating accusations that pro football star Brett Favre sent explicit photos and messages to several women, most notably a New York Jets sideline reporter who worked for the team when he played there. Dozens of golfer Tiger Woods’s text messages to one of his mistresses, Joslyn James, were posted on her website in March, tarnishing Woods’s image and contributing to his divorce.

What part of “Forward With Attachments’’ do these people not seem to understand?

“We’re at the point when assuming any kind of electronic communication is private, absent verification of that, is extremely naive,’’ said Michael Lerner, publisher of Learn the Net, an online resource for novice Internet users. “If you want something to be private, you must spell it out that it’s off the record. And if you’re in a dispute with someone, you would not expect an e-mail like (Griggs’s) not to become public.’’

What had prompted the Cooks Source editor’s e-mail was Gaudio’s complaint that an article of hers had appeared in Cooks Source without permission or compensation. Griggs’s response — in which she erroneously claimed that anything published online is public domain — was a surefire recipe for trouble.

Last week, Cooks Source took down its Facebook page and website in response to a wave of negative reaction. In a statement posted on, the publication apologized to Gaudio, saying it had made donations to two organizations at Gaudio’s request, and promised to change its sourcing practices.

“To say this has hurt our business is an understatement,’’ the posting said, offering conciliatory words to Gaudio while adding that they “liked her article very much.’’ (Griggs did not respond to several requests by the Globe seeking comment.)

The distinction between public and private e-mail has been contested in the states of Washington, Florida, Idaho, and Vermont, where public officials have fought for their right to keep sensitive e-mails from public view. In 2009, former Alaska governor Sarah Palin fended off a legal challenge to her practice of conducting state business on a private e-mail account. Embattled South Carolina governor Mark Sanford’s staff faced a similar challenge to their use of private e-mail accounts to discuss political and policy issues. New York has made it a crime to impersonate another person or public servant via online communication.

For now, said John Verdi, senior counsel for the Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington, D.C., “The big guns in this area are focused on interceptions and unlawful access, not access by recipient.’’ According to Verdi, as long as you are the intended recipient of an electronic communication, you can do what you wish with it.

One take-away from the pummeling Cooks Source and Griggs received, said Boston University communications professor Tobe Berkovitz, is to assume that every private communication could potentially be made public, providing that there is sufficient motive (such as money, revenge, or publicity) to do so.

“Especially in the age of blogs, video cameras, social networks — once someone hears, sees, or reads something, it goes viral. The concept of kiss-and-tell seems quaint compared to what we have now,’’ said Berkovitz.

The risk of private e-mails being seen by unintended recipients is hardly new. Practically everyone knows somebody who’s hit the “send’’ button and regretted it. Yet the ease and speed with which these communications can now spread have turned the e-landscape into even more of a minefield than it was a few years ago.

“It’s a grave misunderstanding that if you post on social-network sites, it’s still somehow private,’’ said George Snell, senior vice president of social and digital media for the consulting firm Weber Shandwick, which specializes in crisis management. “On Twitter, for instance, there’s this mistaken assumption that only people who are following you can read what you wrote. That’s not the case.’’

In light of the Cooks Source blow-up, Snell offered the example of an advertising agency with which his firm has worked. An employee had left the agency and later posted work he’d done there for Client X on his personal blog. When Client X complained, the work was removed, but not before the former employee received a blisteringly angry voicemail from a Client X executive.

The voicemail, an electronic file that can be spread with the click of a mouse, touched off a firestorm of online posts and comments that were deeply embarrassing to Client X, Snell said. Forwarded first to a third party, it spread to a blog widely read in the ad and public-relations industries, then posted on YouTube as an audio file, complete with Client X’s logo attached. Eventually, recalls Snell, Client X did some profuse apologizing publicly and privately, which quieted the firestorm almost as quickly as it had flared up.

“One thing I tell my team,’’ Snell said, “is that if you’ve gone two or three times trying to resolve a misunderstanding or disagreement by e-mail, pick up the phone instead, because e-mails can be taken out of context, and you lose control whenever you send one out.’’

Lerner said there is little excuse for a public figure like Favre, or even a lesser-known professional like Griggs, to get blitzed the way he and others have been.

“There’s no such thing as privacy anymore,’’ Lerner said. “The mantra we use around here is, ‘An e-mail is as private as a postcard.’ ’’

Joseph P. Kahn can be reached at