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Is email ever private?

Posted by Chad O'Connor  June 18, 2013 11:00 AM

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Many of us will be familiar with the recent controversy at Harvard when Resident Deans became upset because they weren’t notified about searches of their email and claimed that the administration had behaved in an “unfair” manner.

Was it unfair? Well, they had some right to be unhappy as their email usage policy did specify that they would be notified “before or soon after” the search event and they weren’t. Some were only notified almost six months after the fact. But it wasn’t so much the late notification breach that upset the Deans, more the actual search and this raises a familiar debate between an individual’s right to privacy, versus the organization’s right to protection.

As an employer, I obviously need to provide my employees with the tools they need to do as effective a job as possible. This includes providing them with the time, network and software to communicate seamlessly with key audiences. In doing so, on my time, using corporate infrastructure, they are entering into an agreement that they are acting in the company’s interest and, as such, I believe my organization absolutely has the right to search employees’ email, should the need arise.

So why does it become a matter of global media interest when such searches are carried out within organizations?

For me, it’s all about having a clear understanding of your rights as an individual in relation to your work - as well as private - email. Organizations need to be clear in their company policies and individuals need to ensure they understand to whom the email ‘belongs’ at the time of communication. When the lines are blurred, if an issue is raised, the situation can very quickly implode and ultimately, you have a scandal on your hands.

This is true for personal email accounts, too. Often known as users’ ‘private’ email accounts, this term is far from the truth. Again, it’s about understanding the terms of the contract with your service provider and your individual rights to avoid controversy further down the line.

It is about time that everyone realizes that they have long ago given up any guarantee of privacy and that their digital actions can become quite transparent. Legal considerations aside, the frequency of compromised email accounts on public email services like Gmail, Yahoo and Hotmail means that the contents of entire mailboxes can be somewhat trivially exposed to criminals or to the public. Through no fault of your own, you may simply have shared something with someone whose account has been compromised and suddenly, your information and your privacy is in jeopardy.

Privacy legislation around the world is constantly adapting to meet the needs and desires of local constituents, while governance and regulation is fighting to protect the interests of organizations and other legal entities. Recently, it was announced that the Senate Judiciary Committee had approved an amendment to the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA) that will require the police to obtain a warrant before searching peoples’ emails. It’s a balancing act and there have been wobbles along the way. US legislation, like the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act and the Patriot Act, allow US authorities to search across both public and private infrastructure without a warrant or notification but, again, as long as individuals accept this as they enter into a contract with an email service provider, then there should be no problem.

Of course the question of how comfortable we are living in a surveillance society is another matter. The recent rapid tracking down of the Boston bombing suspects reminded us of the benefits of surveillance technology in apprehending criminals, but there are downsides too. When a society or a government becomes intent on spying on its people, the human desire for freedom, privacy and self-determination can fight back hard. The balance of power in a society is important and often delicate. New technologies can discretely, but also dramatically shift the power balance without people knowing it. Whatever the motivation, being digitally stalked by people in power or even by their machines is creepy to most of us.

As CEO of a cloud software business responsible for processing and storing vast quantities of corporate email, I’m seeing how increasingly centralised and well organized large volumes of previously fragmented data are becoming today. Paper mail offered a form of privacy through obscurity. There were so many letters in the system that although opening one would be easy, a snooper would really not know which one to open or how to encounter it.

This situation has changed as we’ve gone digital. People and things can be more easily discovered. Google started to ‘organize the world's information’ by delivering a global search engine. Now cloud computing encourages businesses and individuals to migrate more and more of their digital assets into large centralized third party run service offerings. Email is a key application of this.

As privacy legislation continues to be revised and updated, I would urge users of email to exercise some common sense. I also encourage more focus on security practices and the use of diverse and robust passwords – your digital privacy can be lost in several ways and once it’s gone, it’s gone!

At Mimecast, where I work, we have done what we can to ensure that we can comply with every level of privacy and discovery requirement. We interrogate data on the move to identify keywords as they are transmitted, alerting relevant customer representatives about potential transgressions as they occur. We make sure that only appropriate people have access to customer content and even then that no-one has access to it invisibly.

It is through a transparent and open structure that we are able to build trust with our customers and allow them to educate their user base of the risks their organizations are exposed to when using any form of electronic communication.

Peter Bauer is CEO of Mimecast, a provider of unified email management solutions.

This blog is not written or edited by or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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