E-mail poses privacy problems

To read this on Canoe By DAVID CANTON -- London Free Press - November 6 2004

E-mail has revolutionized our workplaces, made workers more efficient and freed us from our desks. But this same communication technology also poses particular privacy risks that need to be carefully considered to minimize accidental disclosure of personal information.

A recent decision by the privacy commissioner of Canada is an example of that risk.

Letters sent by traditional mail can be addressed incorrectly, but e-mail takes the risk of privacy infringement to a whole new level. It's easy enough to do, as anyone who has accidentally clicked on the "reply to all" button can attest.

Auto complete features of some e-mail systems allow for a message to be sent to the first person matching a particular name in the address book, even if they were not the intended recipient. For example, an e-mail meant for Sue Smith may be sent to Ann Smith if the sender is not paying enough attention.

Sending e-mail addressed to unintended recipients is a problem not only because of the disclosure of a person's actual e-mail address, but also because of the disclosure of the person's affiliation with a particular organization or group.

A person may be a member of a particular interest group that he or she doesn't want others to know about. Or a person may be receiving medical information as a part of a group suffering from a similar ailment that he or she wants kept confidential.

Many software applications allow a user to create an e-mail group name and to subsequently enter individual e-mail addresses into the group for the purpose of confidential, mass e-mail distribution. But those groupings must be prepared properly.

The complainants to the privacy commissioner (case #277) entered a photography contest. When they received an e-mail from the company providing the contest, all the entrants' addresses appeared in the "to" field -- and were viewable by everyone who received the message. The assistant privacy commissioner found that the company violated the complainants' privacy rights as protected under the Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act.

PIPEDA applies to every business, organization and individual that collects, uses or discloses personal information in the course of commercial activity. This includes your name, age, health information, purchasing habits, financial history, and any other information about an individual.

With PIPEDA, all organizations in Canada are responsible for all such personal information under their control and are required to protect it through appropriate security measures.

One way to avoid the problem is to use the blind carbon copy or "BCC" field. If you put addresses in the BCC field of an e-mail, the recipients will not see any of the addresses of others.

Another method to ensure privacy is to use e-mail distribution lists.

A distribution list is like a master e-mail list, in that there is one e-mail address that you send e-mail to, which in turn, has multiple recipients. For example, if someone sent an e-mail to the distribution list entitled "staff," then that e-mail would in turn be sent to all of the individual recipients classified as "staff" without them knowing the other recipients. The recipients would only see the group name and not the individual recipients' names.

Also, the auto complete feature of e-mail systems may be disabled, requiring the full name of an individual recipient before a message is sent.

Using those safeguards will reduce the chances of violating privacy rights of e-mail recipients.