E-mailers beware: 'Private' messages may be anything but

Millions of fingers would freeze in mid-typing right now if everyone in the world could keep in mind what a minefield e-mail can be.

Consider what Tom Ryan, an information technology director, discovered when he downloaded software to analyze a week's worth of employee e-mail at his Southern California high-tech firm.

He found employees swapping pornography. Employees forwarding racist jokes. Employees running their private businesses on company time and resources.

Worst of all, "we found that one of our managers in a position of responsibility sent out a resume which detailed work he had done on top-secret, highly competitive intellectual property projects we were working on," said Ryan, who asked that his company not be identified for confidentiality reasons.

"It took all of us in the room to restrain our CEO from walking out the door to fire this person right then and there.

"It absolutely terrified us what goes on every day."

E-mail, as former state employee Joseph F. Steffen Jr. is learning as reporters comb through his thousands of messages, is hardly the private exchange that it seems to be.

Steffen - the aide to Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. who was forced to resign for spreading Internet rumors about Mayor Martin O'Malley - has joined the growing ranks of e-mailers whose presumably private messages have been made public.

Last week, Boeing Co. Chief Executive Officer Harry Stonecipher was booted from his job after an anonymous tipster notified board executives of racy e-mails that the chief executive was sending his lover at the company.

What is it about e-mailing that leads so many down the same wayward path?

Its irresistibility, said Kenneth Morgen, president of the Baltimore Psychological Association, lies in its curious combination of physical distance and emotional immediacy.

"The person they are writing is not in front of them," Morgen said, but at the same time the correspondence is delivered and often read within minutes.

Alas, sometimes the reader is not the intended recipient.

"Oh my God, it's the worst thing you can do," said Dustin Plantholt, an employee benefits adviser in Towson. "I sent an e-mail to a good friend of mine at work asking her to go out for drinks, and I accidentally sent it to a client in Baltimore. The client sent me an e-mail back that said, 'I'm married.'"

Plantholt's mortification was fairly tame as the ramifications of errant e-mails go.

Remember "Brad the Cad"? He was the London lawyer who received a steamy "thanks-for-last-night" e-mail from a woman, which he proudly forwarded to a few friends, who forwarded it to their friends. The rest is Internet history.

Beyond personal humiliation, e-mail increasingly figures into legal and criminal cases. Baltimore-based Mercantile Bankshares Corp. did not hesitate to introduce into evidence dozens of e-mails written by former executive John J. Pileggi, who filed a $240 million lawsuit against the company for firing him.

In its countersuit, Mercantile mined two years' worth of Pileggi's e-mails disparaging his boss and colleagues, and detailing an extramarital affair with a woman whom he had helped land a job at the bank.

In September, Frank P. Quattrone, an investment banker to the 1990s technology boom, received an 18-month prison sentence for obstructing justice. He had sent an e-mail message to colleagues urging them to "clean up" their computer files during a federal investigation.

Star research analyst Jack Grubman settled civil charges for $15 million and accepted a lifetime ban from Wall Street in 2003 after his brazen e-mails surfaced, documenting how he had pushed stock in return for a recommendation from CitiGroup Inc. CEO Sanford Weill that Grubman's children be admitted to the exclusive 92nd Street Y preschool in Manhattan.

E-mails contributed to President Bill Clinton's impeachment. Intern Monica Lewinsky's e-mails to friends about the Oval Office affair were among the documents seized by prosecutor Kenneth Starr to make his case.

Plot twists

The potential pitfalls of e-mailing are made for plot twists. Dawson's Creek character Joey Potter (actress Katie Holmes) got dinged in an October 2002 episode when she accidentally sent to the entire student body a personal e-mail meant for the object of her affections.

Despite such cautionary tales, people seem to have bad short-term memory. Or maybe, as Morgen the Baltimore psychologist says, it's "narcissistic vulnerability."

Despite evidence to the contrary, no one thinks he will be the one humiliated - or fired or charged or sued - because of an e-mail.

People may display an amazing ability to delete from their minds tales of supposedly private e-mails that were splashed across front pages or forwarded throughout cyberspace. But computer desktops and corporate mainframes don't have the same lapses of memory. The delete key means nothing when it comes to e-mail.

In the high-tech world of communications, e-mail is forever.

E-mail was never designed to serve such broad needs, said Barclay Blair, co-author of Information Nation and information technology director of Kahn Consulting Inc., a Chicago-based company that helps companies write e-mail policies.

Invented in the 1970s, e-mail "was originally intended for network administrators to send quick, casual messages to each other," he said. But that a convenient tool for the few has become an all-purpose communication mode for the masses.

"E-mail is so convenient that it spread throughout enterprises without anyone thinking about what it was and how it should be controlled," he said.

"I always view e-mail as a postcard written in pencil," Blair said. "Like a postcard, anyone who intercepts it can read it. Also, anyone who intercepts it has the ability to change it without detection."

In many contexts today, including courts, electronic documents have the same status as hard copies. Deals can be sealed with the "send" button.

In a 2004 survey of 840 businesses across the country by the American Management Association and the ePolicy Institute, the e-mail and instant messages of 21 percent of companies have been subpoenaed in the course of a lawsuit or regulatory investigation. That's more than double the 9 percent reported in 2001.

No confidentiality

"E-mail is not a confidential communication system," said Donald A. Rea, attorney and co-chairman of the electronic discovery practice group at the law firm Gordon, Feinblatt, Rothman, Hoffberger & Hollander LLC. "Part of the problem is because it's so anonymous. With a telephone conversation, you're speaking to a human being, so you have that connection. With a letter, there's a certain amount of formality to that.

"With e-mail, you're sitting there by yourself with your door closed, maybe at 2 o'clock in the morning," Rea said. "You hit the button and it's gone. People say things in e-mail they would never say in person. It just creates these records that are remarkable. And more and more, litigation and depositions have focused almost entirely on e-mails in some cases."

Chevron paid $2.2 million to four female employees in 1995 to settle a sexual-harassment suit stemming from an e-mail circulated by male employees. Among the e-mail messages was "25 Reasons Why Beer is Better than Women."

When companies or organizations receive e-mail subpoenas, they usually call an e-mail management firm such as Waterford Technologies, based in California.

Using software programs, such firms can scan a company's e-mail database looking for patterns such as inappropriate language or images, frequent communication among individuals or numerous large attachments. They can pull text from any e-mail sent or received. They can monitor any e-mail sent on a company account or free account such as Hotmail, Yahoo or EarthLink.

They can reach into backup files and find an e-mail that was deleted five years ago.

Much e-mail monitored

Many workers don't realize it, but about 60 percent of companies monitor external employee e-mail these days. About 20 percent also monitor internal e-mail, according to the ePolicy Institute survey.

That's how Waterford helped a professional basketball team discover that one of its employees had sent an e-mail detailing secret salary figures during sensitive negotiations.

Waterford also helped Tom Ryan's company in California uncover its unruly e-mailer.

The manager who divulged proprietary information, on a resume no less, "exited the building shortly thereafter," Ryan said. "Needless to say, it helped us clean house."

Anthony Sanchez, vice president of marketing at Waterford - who has seen it all, from e-mail that's merely interesting to e-mail that's criminal - said people should step away from the send button.

'Permanent record'

"People need to realize that once it's written and sent, it's a permanent record for all time of human history," Sanchez said. "Whatever you write, make sure you don't mind your mom reading it, because it will always be there, somewhere, for someone to possibly read forever and ever and ever."

Sun researcher Shelia Jackson contributed to this article.


E-Mail Dos and Don'ts

For the e-mail sender who wants to avoid mishaps:

  • Treat an e-mail message as if it were a formal letter, said attorney Donald A. Rea. Write in complete sentences, always include a salutation and don't forget a signature block. "It forces me to sit back and think about what I'm writing," Rea said. More formality can help reduce misguide spontaneous messages.
  • Read an e-mail aloud before sending it, experts said. It can help catch aggressive language or unintended emotions in writing.
  • Run the spell check, suggested Jim Klumpp, a University of Maryland communications professor. By the time it's finished, you might decide you don't want to send the e-mail.
  • Always refrain from sending love notes, inappropriate material or confidential information. E-mail is not private. For companies or organizations looking to avoid a lawsuit: Nancy Flynn of the ePolicy Institute suggests adhering to the "Three Es."
  • Establish a written policy on e-mail use.
  • Educate the work force, from the summer intern to the chief executive officer, on the rules and the penalties for improper e-mail use.
  • Enforce those policies. Discipline violators.
  • Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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