Never trust your secrets to e-mail

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The Independent Online
WHETHER Microsoft wins or loses its anti-trust battle with the US Department of Justice, it is likely that the case will come to be remembered as "trial by e-mail". It has shown that unless we take special pains to protect our messages, they can be read by those who were never meant to see them.

Both sides' attorneys are relying heavily on e-mail evidence to make their respective cases. The implications should send a shudder down the spine of anyone who has ever sent or received an e-mail that contained sensitive information.

Most people who use e-mail - be it via the internet or across an office over a corporate network - consider it to be a transient form of communication, like a telephone call. It disappears into the ether when you hit the "send" button - and disappears from your computer when you hit "delete".

The truth is that e-mail leaves a trail that can be tracked by investigators and skilled computer technicians. You may think you have deleted that scandalous gossip about your boss or that CV you sent to a rival firm. But it is still there, hidden on your hard disk or on your company's mail servers or e-mail logs.

Even e-mails sent several years ago can be retrieved by investigators and used as evidence. Last week Microsoft introduced into evidence an e-mail written on 29 December 1994 by James Clark, chairman and co-founder of rival Netscape. The Justice Department, in turn, has presented more than a dozen memos and e-mail messages written by the Microsoft chairman, Bill Gates, over the past three years.

While the average home-computer user or office worker could be forgiven for failing to be aware of the potential for an e-mail message to come back to haunt them, what about Gates and his army of geeks at Microsoft? Surely they would be wise to the perils of e-mail. Apparently not. In fact, this is not the first time Microsoft has had legal trouble with e-mail. In 1993 it was sued for sex discrimination by a female employee. Personal e-mails in which a Microsoft supervisor described himself as "President of the Amateur Gynaecology Club" were admitted by the court as evidence of sexual bias.

There are, of course, ways to prevent your e-mail being read by others. Encryption software scrambles it so only you and those you choose can read it. Given the goings-on in Washington last week, sales of such software are likely to soar. As the Microsoft trial is making all too clear, e- mail is anything but ephemeral.