By Philip Baczewski, senior director, University Information Technology
You may have recently heard news stories about certain emails. Email servers seem to have dominated the news cycle for the last two years. And leaked email may have even influenced the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election.
The thing about email is that you never know when or where it will turn up. We are lulled into complacency by the many admonitions to keep our password secure and use only secure connections to send and receive email. Email between individuals seems like a private conversation, but that privacy can evaporate at any moment and with very little effort or malice involved.
I've had one rule about email that I've followed for the last 25 years. (Yes, I really have been using email for that long. no, I did not invent email.) That rule was derived from John Quarterman's book, The Matrix: "Assume permanence and ubiquity."1 Email is permanent because you don't know how long it will exist in someone's mailbox or on a backup tape (maybe forever). Email is ubiquitous because once you hit the send button, you lose control of its distribution -- whether intended or not, your email could end up readable by the entire worldwide internet. So if what you are writing is not something you would wish the entire world to read, you may want to think twice about committing it to email.
Maybe we should just stop using email? But email is too useful to give up entirely. We can, however, minimize damage to how we are perceived by being a bit more thoughtful in composing email messages. If a message is well reasoned, grammatically correct, and clearly stated, then it is less likely to be perceived negatively by whoever ends up reading it. In other words, etiquette matters.
The Secret is Out
By this point, you may be asking yourself, "why didn't he tell us this before?" Well, I first wrote about this in 1991 and reprised that article in 1999, followed by references in 2003, 2006, and 2012. In fact, the email rule provides the basis for my rules of internet privacy. In case you've forgotten my rules of internet privacy, I'll reprise them here:
- If you don't want the world to know about it, DON'T post it on the internet.
We have to remember that behind the email client you use to compose a message, there is a complex infrastructure which now includes systems and storage that are provided by external companies (such as Microsoft.) While many people work very hard to ensure email security and privacy, the nature of the electronic medium is that information tends to be preserved. You have a copy in your sent mail folder and your recipient has a copy in their inbox and who knows where the message has been cached on its way between the two of you. Even if we give up email for exclusive use of Snapchat who knows if those private "snaps" are cached on some Snapchat server?
Perhaps if more people had been paying attention, current events would have turned out differently. If more people had assumed permanence and ubiquity, then perhaps some embarrassing emails would have been less embarrassing. Enough said.
1. Quarterman, John S., The Matrix (Digital Press, 1990): 37.