Lynn, Jacquelyn


It’s a relatively recent technology that is rapidly becoming standard office equipment: electronic mail, or e-mail. It’s provided the business world with a tremendous communication enhancement, offering a quick, easy, inexpensive way to communicate with clients, colleagues, and vendors around the globe. But along with these benefits come risks. Used incorrectly, e-mail can result in personal and professional embarrassment, lost business, and costly litigation. Consider these possible scenarios: A questionable joke gets forwarded to someone who interprets it as harassment; critical comments about an employee accidentally land in that person’s e-mail box; confidential client information is inadvertently attached to a message sent to another client, or worse, an opposing law firm; or a chain of messages that include distasteful office gossip are introduced as evidence in a lawsuit.

As the number of employees who have access to e-mail continues to grow, it is becoming increasingly important to educate everyone about the do’s and don’ts for communicating in the networked business world. Often, all it takes is making sure employees understand the advantages, limitations, and risks involved in e-mail. American Media, Inc., in West Des Moines, Iowa, has developed a training video, “No Privacy: Legal Issues in E-mail,” to help with this process. Among the critical points the video makes are: E-mail messages should be considered and treated as public information, not private communication.

E-mail should be regarded as a permanent form of communication. Even though users delete messages, copies are stored in multiple places in the computer system and can be retrieved later in an audit or by order of a court of law or government agency. Messages and documents can be stored for years on back-up disks or tapes, and can be introduced as evidence in legal actions over anti-trust, discrimination, termination, or copyright infringement.

E-mail should never be used to discuss sensitive issues, such as employee performance, suspicions of misconduct, salary levels, or other confidential topics. Once you send an e-mail, you have no control over where else it might go. Never write anything in an e-mail that you wouldn’t want the entire world to see. Don’t use the firm’s business e-mail system for your private electronic correspondence.

Deleted doesn’t mean destroyed

There is a tremendous temptation to treat e-mail as if it were simply a casual verbal communication; after all, it comes in, you read it, hit the delete key, and it’s gone, right? Wrong. Deleting e-mail – or any file on your computer – does not mean that it’s erased. In fact, until a new file is written to the sector on the disk where the data was stored, the information can be easily recovered by using simple undelete programs.

Another privacy risk comes with the automatic backup routines most e-mail systems, word processors, and other programs perform. While this protects your work in progress from a computer crash or an accidental erasure, the system is still creating and deleting files that might contain confidential information and could be recovered by an unauthorized individual.

If you’re concerned enough about confidentiality to shred paper documents in your office, you need to take the same careful approach to the files on your computer, whether they are e-mail or other types of information files.

One solution is Shredder, a permanent file erasure software that overwrites files as you delete them, giving you the security of knowing your deleted files are truly unrecoverable. Shredder also has a feature that lets you keep your Internet activities private by overwriting all traces of your web activity except those that you choose to keep.

A similar product is TruErase, published by Photon, Inc., in Seattle. TruErase standardizes removal and deletion routines on desktop computers, creates templates that define and enforce retention policies, predefines groups of files that need to be deleted, and selects files for deletion across multiple drives from one window.

The bottom line is that taking a toocasual approach to electronic file management can have disastrous results. Media reports tell of an increasing number of court cases that are turning on electronic information. Protect your firm and your clients by protecting your electronic files.

Jacquelyn Lynn is a freelance business writer based in Winter Park, Florida. She can be reached via email at

Copyright Commercial Law League of America Sep/Oct 1998

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