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.