Your Internet Consultant - The FAQs of Life Online

12.4. Is my electronic mail private?

Although electronic mail is useful, quick, and easy to use, it is not necessarily private. In the best of all worlds (and the vast majority of the time), no one will read your electronic messages except you and the intended recipients. But because electronic mail is made up of plain old easy-to-read ASCII text and because your e-mail message can be passed through any number of strangers' computers on the way to its destination, an e-mail message is the electronic equivalent of a postcard.

It's as if you dropped your letter in the postal service mailbox and knew it would get to the other side, but really had no way to ascertain what would happen in route. Would it be popped open and read out loud to the mailroom at an intermediate stop? Federal law prohibits U.S. Postal workers from doing that, and they're more likely to get caught than electronic mail pirates who can effortlessly make a duplicate of your message without leaving a trace. For that reason, here's my advice: never say anything in electronic mail that you wouldn't want your boss, your competition, your mom, or the government to know.

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