Is Email Private?

email privacyEmail is not private. Think of email like a postcard, at best. It’s actually more public than a postcard. Here’s what you need to know.

In a nutshell, here’s why email is not private:

  1. It’s relatively easy to see any email message if someone cares enough to hunt for it.
  2. There are some common incidental ways that people end up seeing your email.

Anyone Can Track Down My Emails?

A postcard is only exposed to the mail carriers and whoever sees your mail where you live or work. That’s nothing compared to the fact that anyone in the world can track down your email messages if they want to.

I don’t know the technical details on how to snoop, but from what I understand, enough people have that technical know-how and there’s nothing (but scruples) to stop them from using it. And if you watch those criminal investigation TV shows, you’ve seen it in action.

Even worse than that, snoopers can often find past emails, even after you have deleted them. Your email provider might store copies that go way back.

Think no one cares enough to snoop?

Think again. Consider that you might end up in a lawsuit over a car accident, and the opposition will want to find a little dirt on you to discredit you. Email is an easy place to look for “dirt.”

More Common Privacy Mishaps

OK, let’s assume you’re not the subject of a police investigation, lawsuit, or snooping, there are still some common ways that people see your emails:

  • Emails are notoriously forwarded without the sender’s permission. Whether in the name of efficiency or gossip, it’s common.
    (“Look what this person just said about you!”)
  • We accidentally send an email to the wrong person.
    (I have two friends named Meg and I accidentally wrote to the wrong Meg the other day. Luckily it wasn’t a breech of confidence but it was definitely confusing.)
  • We accidentally hit “reply all” when we meant to write to only one person.
    (Ouch, I still remember a time someone hit “reply all” when she wrote something very personal to me. I don’t know who was more embarrassed: me, her, or the fifty or so recipients.)
  • And then there’s your work email that can be viewed by your employer anytime.
    Are you still using work email for personal emailing? Time to get your own email account.

Solution?

Basically, don’t say it over email if you don’t want it on the news.

Remember the phone? Hey, there it is next to the computer. So convenient!

Phone calls are much more private. Phone privacy is protected by law in the U.S. And honestly, it’s more appropriate for delicate conversations anyway.

What About Encrypted Email?

There are ways to send encrypted email for greater privacy, but it’s a bit of a hassle. Last I checked, it hasn’t made it into common usage. But if you need it enough to go to some trouble and probably pay a bit, it’s available.

When I interact with my clients via the internet, I have a secure client portal where all messages are secure.

By law (HIPAA), health care providers in the U.S. are supposed to (or at least strongly encouraged to) use encrypted communication or similar privacy protection methods when discussing patient info electronically. In reality, providers are not 100% compliant.

Note that when you use an email service like Gmail, they offer a secure server to view your messages online, but this does not protect your email from being seen. The emails are not encrypted during sending and receiving.

Don’t confuse email’s lack of privacy with concerns about banking online or using credit cards online. There are numerous encryption and privacy methods in place on legitimate banking and e-commerce websites.

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  • Excellent post! Most folks don’t know how public email is. Some of the best tools to catch internet traffic off either wired or wireless networks are free and easy to use. You are also correct about encryption. Email encryption just isn’t as simple as it could be, adding a few steps to the non-secure email creation and sending process. Thanks for touching on this topic and for the clarity of your advice and writing!

    • Thanks Mark for sharing your technical expertise with us. I appreciate your feedback and additions!