Email Privacy

Is Email Really Private?

Some people have concerns about how to protect the privacy of their email. These concerns tend to be focused on using one email system or another to ensure email privacy. Unfortunately, this focus misses the area where some of the most serious threats to your email's privacy actually occur. The purpose of this is to explain where these threats actually occur.

The fundamental tool used by email systems to ensure privacy is encryption. Good email systems require that you send and receive email through an encrypted connection to their servers. This means that your communication to the server cannot be read by outsiders who might be eavesdropping on your connection. Because of this encryption, your email's privacy is subject to very little risk during the sending process.

The greatest risks to your email's privacy occurs on the receiving end. You have no control over how the person receiving your email could be handling it. She or he could be forwarding your email to other addresses, or sending it to other people. There is also a risk in the way that the recipient stores your email. The person could be making multiple copies and saving them to insecure devices, like laptops, PDAs, public desktop computers, or memory sticks. If an intruder happened to get access to one of those devices they would also have access to all of the emails you had sent that person.

Because these serious risks occur on remote email systems there is little you can do to protect against them. The best measure anyone can take to reduce the risks associated with email is to use it responsibly, with knowledge of its pitfalls and dangers. A good rule of thumb is, any conversation you feel comfortable having on a cell phone in public would be an appropriate conversation for email. You probably wouldn't talk about confidential information over a cell phone because you cannot guarantee the conversation's privacy. For similar reasons, some documents are too sensitive to send through regular University mail.

When using any communication system, you must strongly consider if it's level of privacy is adequate for your correspondence. Email communication poses risks to the privacy of your messages. Does this mean you should never use email, or never send information in email attachments? The answer to both of these questions is no. Email is a great form of communication, but before you send a message consider the consequences if its privacy is breached.