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Email and the Basic Insecurity of the Internet
ZDNet article on the insecurity of the Internet


Wikipedia's article on email privacy



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Email has been in the news lately. The Detroit Free Press reported that a Michigan resident could face a prison term for snooping in his wife's Gmail account; no matter that he discovered her then-current affair with an ex. A very highly publicized email has tied a close aide of the Governor of New Jersey to apparent politically-motivated traffic-snarling shenanigans on the George Washington Bridge. The NSA regularly collects ordinary folks' emails in hopes of tracking and trapping terrorists. Now some terrorists, the Governor's aide and the wife of that Michigan resident all assumed too much about email, namely that it's more secure than it really is, despite the fact that email is legally equated with letters and so legally protected from all forms of eavesdropping. Legal issues aside, email is ordinarily secured by a password system, but this single layer of protection is not enough to guarantee real security. Email is not encrypted-- it passes as plain text through many servers on its way to its intended. These servers are computers with hard drives that are regularly and automatically backed up, also with no encryption. And so each and every email leaves a trail as it goes that can be easily inspected months or even years later. Finally, email recipients often compromise privacy by indiscriminate forwarding. Forwarded emails can contain contact as well as confidential information.

What to do about it? The following suggestions improve your chances:

1. Change your email or service provider password from time to time and make it long and really obscure with mixed-case letters, avoiding English words and adding numbers and special characters. Don't use the same password for multiple email accounts.

2. Ask your friends not to include your email address in their mass-forwardings.

3. Consider petitioning your Internet Service Provider to begin encrypting emails. How difficult could that be for them?

4. Understand that emails sent on your company's time and using an account that they have provided gives your company legal right to the content of such emails.

5. Keep in mind that there's not really much you can do about it, and just how out-in-the-open all emails are.

The Internet is a battleground and a fight is being fought for information that you consider private. Criminals would steal it, corporations would monetize it, and government agencies would put your information through the wringer-- you know, in case you or someone you know decides to radicalize. They all want to get to know you better. Assume that every email you send will eventually be read by everyone you'd like to keep it away from. Because it probably will.
August 3, 2014

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