Who gets copies of your eMail?

When last did you send a private eMail from the office while at the same time worrying that someone came across it? Perhaps you were telling a colleague how hopeless your boss is, or arranging a secret date with a co-worker. Possibly even something harmless like chatting with a friend on the other side of the world. It seems you have every reason to worry. There is absolutely nothing private about your company eMail.

Michael Smyth, a regional manager at an American company (Pillsbury) found this out the hard way. A recent Fortune magazine reported that he sent an eMail to his supervisor “blasting company managers and threatening to kill the backstabbing bastards”. He did not intend anyone to take his figure of speech seriously, but the company did. Although Pillsbury had previously assured employees that eMail messages sent from work were private, they intercepted this particular message and fired Smyth. He took them to court claiming wrongful discharge but the court threw out the case.

eMail is deceptive. There is nothing that feels quite as personal as exchanging notes with a friend or confidant. Far more private than a conversation at the coffee machine? Well, not quite. You see the “discussions” you have on eMail are recorded and transferred from your computer to your colleagues using software owned and controlled by your company. While your messages may seem private, it is very easy for the administrators of the eMail system to intercept each and every message.

eMail administration software allows management to select what they want to read. It is possible to tell the system to send a copy of all or any messages sent to or from a particular user. While you’re reading this, someone in your company could be reading your eMail message destined for Aunt Agatha.

The legalities of this snooping are quite clear. The eMail system belongs to the company and management therefore has the right to look at anything sent or received using it. A leading South African labour law attorney says that your eMail inbox can be seen in the same light as your desk drawer. The owners or management of your company own it and have the right to inspect the contents at any time. A cursory examination of other countries indicates that this is the same in many parts of the world including the United States.

What are your options to prevent your private notes from becoming company property? Quite simply – don’t send private eMail at the office. Pay the monthly fee and setup a private eMail account with an internet service provider (ISP). There are many ISP’s these days that will offer a free or reduced rate eMail only account. It is possible to encrypt your message but is complicated unless you are a real techie. On top of that, the person receiving the message needs to have the same encryption capabilities as yourself (unlikely).

POSTSCRIPT “Well at least they can’t see what I’ve been looking at on the web,” you may be saying. Don’t be so sure. At a recent “big m” seminar where they were (steam)rolling out their new products for the next couple of months – they announced a product that would allow corporate “administrators” to monitor who was visiting which websites and control access to certain sites based on user profiles.

What sells on the internet?

Our company sells two “products” on the internet: unit trusts (Mutual Funds) and wine. I thought it might be interesting to share some of our experiences because my research, although brief, is showing that other people are having the same experiences that we are.

Our products are completely different. While wine is a commodity that has physical properties and can be touched and tasted, unit trusts are purely an information product. When last did you hold a unit trust to your bosom and savour the dividend yield?

I believe that in these early days of cyberspace, information products will lead the way when selling over the net. Our experience is that while unit trust sales have taken off, our sale of wine has been dismal.

Before you shoot me down and throw Virtual Vineyards and CDNow in my face as examples that prove my theory wrong, I would like to defend myself by saying that my argument is not exclusive. There will be internet websites that are very successful in selling commodities but the people selling information type products will consistently find it easier and will do better.

So what are examples of these information products? Anything that doesn’t really need to have physical properties. I say need because computer software is generally bought in a neatly packaged box with a manual and CD but you could just as easily download it from the internet – sans the pretty box and documentation.

Other examples of information products would be services offered, books, broking and pure information – paying $100 a month to view equity analysis over the internet. Information products are any items that are not dependent on a physical state. A book is a good example because while you can touch and hold it, it is through convenience that we use it in paper form. Alternative media for distributing the written word (like the internet) will allow books to take on many new forms in the near future.

Now what about commodities? The Hop Shop is a web in site in Verbier, Switzerland selling household items, cosmetics and Swiss chocolate – all commodities. Alan Woolman, the webmaster, recently did a survey which came up with the following results.

Question: Have you ever bought anything online?
Often: 0%
Occasionally: 43%
Never: 57%

Question: What types of product have you bought?
Computer/internet related: 46%
Books/catalogues: 27%
Health/fitness: 2%
Household products: 7%
Sports equipment: 2%
Food: 7%
Other: 9%
These included CDs, greeting cards and clothing.

Question: What is your main reason for buying on the internet?
time-saving: 28%
ease of use: 24%
availability of products: 12%
price: 5%
alternate shipping address: 0%
I’d never buy on the internet: 31%

While not being authoritative the survey could be viewed as a small indication of buying trends on the internet. Interestingly, the top items purchased are information-based.

But is it not only the nature of the product that causes it to sell. An interesting point was made from a contributor to the I-Sales discussion group who was commenting on why the capitalist system works: “You need to have an elite that runs the impulsive consuming habits of the masses (through advertising and education).”

I believe that this is true and is possibly one of the reasons why commerce on the internet has not skyrocketed just yet. Those of us on the internet are the elite and the masses are not here yet. The question to ask is whether the masses will arrive on the internet or the internet will increase the size of the elite. Before either happens we are likely to follow the middle of the road with the elite selling to the elite.

My advice to those of you about to set up a business on the internet: if your product is a commodity then expect to have a tougher time selling it than if your product is information-based.

Please let me know when you prove me wrong – I have a couple of cases of excellent Cape wine in the basement.

Moving the queue from the ATM to the web server

A few weeks back, in my article about online banking, I made a comment about a major South African banking group claiming to be the first to have online banking; but in fact having not much more than a few inquiry screens.

Well, that’s all changed. Nedbank came to the party last Friday with their launch of Netbank. I am fortunately already a Nedbank customer and have used Beltel to access my Nedbank accounts, so I presume that the transition to their web based banking was easier than most.

As with any online bank, security is an issue. Netbank is no exception and it comes with security software that you need to download and install. To their credit they give explicit instructions on the home page.

As with most things computer, there was a problem with the software and it didn’t load correctly on my computer. It was a little difficult to find an e-mail address on the site but eventually I used one of their feedback forums to cry help. A note came back a few hours later in true South African banking style: “Thanks for your note, unfortunately our staff have all left already but someone will contact you on Monday.”

Being 3 o’clock on a Friday, this was pretty normal banking procedure but it did put a bit of a damper on my struggle to get online. Then out of the blue, Gary, a knight in shining armour, came galloping through on the Netbank toll free support line. “No problem,” he said, “I’ll e-mail you a copy of the software right away.” Five minutes later and I was in business.

I was told that the software would automatically configure Netscape and the Internet Explorer on my computer which it did with no problem. Ready to log on, I hunted down my Nedbank profile number from an old statement and entered it on the log on screen. Password? Easier said than done, of course.

Going through my various bank cards, credit cards and slips of paper I tried every password that Nedbank had every given me – to no avail. Back to the toll free line. I’m sure you know that getting anyone from an SA bank to speak to you at 6.00 pm on a Friday is quite unusual. Not so with Nedbank.

After supplying Gary with my profile number, we quickly slipped back into catch 22 mode with him politely pointing out that the password would have to be issued by someone in a Nedbank branch.

By this stage my appetite had been wetted and there was no way that I was going to go home and admit that I had failed in my quest to be one of the first people to log on to the country’s first online bank.

I supplied Gary with a stream of information about myself including my mother’s maiden name so that he could verify who I was. Again he came through for me. “Here is a temporary PIN,” he said, “please change it as soon as you log on.”

Congratulations Nedbank – you really have come to the party in terms of web- based banking. Everything available through Beltel is available on the web. The functionality is of course a vast improvement over Beltel.

There are still some obvious omissions such as the ability to set up a new account payment online (you still need to go into the bank) but without leaving my PC I logged on for the first time, browsed my statements, transferred money between accounts and paid an outstanding telephone bill.

Nedbank has supported the launch of Netbank with an advertising campaign on television which it seems may have been a little too successful. Upon demonstrating Netbank to a colleague on Monday I got no joy from their web server as I waited with all the other users.

It’s interesting to note how the banks have moved the queue from within the bank to the ATM machines and now we wait as our bits and bytes of information stand in line to receive attention from a web server.

The Netbank slogan: “from inline to online” may be just a little ahead of its time.