Most of us take email for granted. We just type in an address, pound out a message and hit send. We trust our email will get there in a prompt fashion and that, if needed, we’ll hear back from the recipient shortly.
The problem is that email doesn’t go directly from point A to point B. Your email, as with nearly all communication on the Internet, is first passed through a series of intermediaries that receive it and send it on its way again.
Since this happens within the blink of an eye it’s easy for us to miss it or not think about it. However, this system has drastic impacts for the relative privacy of email both in terms of how secure our information is and what others can do with it.
The truth is simple. Email, at least by itself, is not a private method of communication and should never be treated as such. Your email is not safe from snooping by the government, by your employers, by your ISP nor even disclosure by your recipient.
The impact this has on you depends on how you want to use email, but the basics of the situation are pretty much the same for everyone, never put anything in an email you don’t want disclosed publicly later.
The Shortest Route
The problem with email, as mentioned above, is that email doesn’t go directly from sender to recipient but is passed through a series of routers and servers, each of which can easily read the message and store it. When it comes to email privacy, this creates not just a slew of both practical and legal issues.
In part because of this, email is not given the same level of privacy as other means of communication. For example. it’s akin to sending a postcard through the mail versus sending a sealed envelope.
If you send a postcard through the mail, there is no reasonable expectation of privacy as the information on it can be publicly viewed. So anyone who read and rebroadcast information on a postcard is in a different position than one who steamed open a sealed envelope, where such a reasonable expectation exists.
With email, unless you take some additional steps, there is no virtually no expectation of privacy. This can even be compounded by using free email services or, even worse, your work email.
Some of this has been codified into law as well. For example, in order to get access your email older than 180 days, in the U.S. law enforcement only needs a subpoena, not a warrant. This is per the Electronic Communications privacy Act of 1986. This says nothing about the PATRIOT Act and other pieces of legislation passed that may make it even easier.
However, all of that just details the government’s ability to snoop on email and says nothing about the ability of the recipient to disclose its contents. There, since there is such a limited expectation of privacy, if any, it’s widely believed that, with only a few exceptions, the recipient is free to disclose what they want from the email, including forwarding it on to others or posting it on their blog.
In short, while the U.S. government, as well as many other governments, have at least some restrictions on when they can access your email, your recipients have almost no such obligations. Meaning your biggest threat to email privacy may not be third party snooping, but disclosure by the person you’re trying to reach.
What Can You Do?
If you’re worried about the privacy of your email, there are only two things you can do realistically:
- Encrypt Your Email: First, you can use some form of email encryption, such as GnuPG to prevent others from reading your mail. Not only does this make reading your mail and disclosing more difficult as a practical matter, but it increases your expectation of privacy and may provide some additional legal protection.
- Don’t Treat Email as Private: Or, perhaps more practically, you can assume everything you send via email can and will be viewed publicly and not send anything that you don’t want on the evening news.
In the end, your best protection against broad disclosure of your email is the fact that so many are sent. With nearly 300 billion emails being sent every day, the odds of any one of your messages getting enough public interest to become a sensation is slim to none.
That being said, there is a very real threat of disclosure to parties you don’t want information leaking to including clients, friends, family members and even people just Googling your name or business.
Those issues alone can cause more than enough headache to make just about anyone wary of sending private information via email.
On Republishing Email
With all of that being said, one of the more common questions I get asked is if you can legally republish something that was said in an email on a blog. The answer, as with most such questions is “depends”.
Generally speaking, you can repeat information learned in an email. However, you need to be wary of a few exceptions to the rule.
- Privileged Information: If you are republishing information that you got under some other kind of privilege, such as with an attorney or doctor, it is still a violation to disclose it. This also applies if you signed a non-disclosure agreement or similar contract.
- Copyright Issues: Emails are protected by copyright so repeating an email word-for-word or very closely to it may be an infringement of copyright.
- Publicity Given to Private Life: If you publicize any fact about one’s private life that would both be highly offensive to a reasonable person and not relevant to the public, then you may still be violating their privacy.
In short, while you generally can disclose what is contained in an email, there are some clear exceptions to the rule. However, it’s worth noting that those confidentiality and other disclaimers afford little protection, especially when applied to all outgoing email.
All of that aside, one has to ask themselves a difficult question. Not “Can I republish this information?” but “Should I republish this information?” While you might legally be able to republish what you learned in an email without permission, it will likely upset people who contacted you, who are often expecting some level of confidentiality.
Routinely publicizing other people’s messages sent to you (or even others) is not a way to make friends, especially when you can often just ask permission and run with it having that person’s cooperation.
Those stories, in turn, are often the best as you can usually get additional information that can help you do even more with your write up.
If you’re looking for privacy when it comes to email, you aren’t going to find it. Unless you’re taking additional steps to protect your email, you can generally assume everything you send via email is public from the moment you hit send.
As such, it’s best to use email with that in mind and to not send anything you don’t want disclosed. Likewise, while there are exceptions to the rule, you can generally reproduce email on your blog but you need to be wary of not just legal but also ethical issues doing so raises.
In the end, there is nothing secure about email and the quicker we accept that, the quicker we can make better use of it.
Have a question about the law and freelance writing? Either leave a comment below or contact me directly if you wish to keep the information private (However, please mention that it is a suggestion for The Blog Herald. This column will be determined largely by your suggestions and questions so let me know what you want to know about.
I am not an attorney and nothing in this article should be taken as legal advice.