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.Reuse content