January 02, 2001, 9:04 AM — Most computer users with some experience treat e-mail with the informality of an untaped phone call.
As Bill Gates and a host of lesser-known e-mail users have discovered, this can be a big mistake. Increasingly, old
e-mail, even internal e-mail, is likely to be used as evidence in a court case. Sometimes, what was written in an informal e-mail in the heat of the moment doesn't always look so good when your company is under a litigator's microscope.
Obviously, you can delete e-mail, but deleted computer files have a nasty way of resurfacing. A lawyer looking for provocative e-mail will send in a forensic team to make image copies of your company's local and network hard drives and backup tapes and then scan them for the proverbial "smoking gun." What you may need is disappearing e-mail from the San Francisco firm that calls itself Disappearing Inc.
Disappearing e-mail has two parts: a 300KB add-on to Microsoft Outlook 98 or 2000 on each user's desktop, and a Disappearing Inc. key server that is accessible via the Web. (A version for Lotus Notes is due this quarter, but Notes users can read disappearing e-mail messages that they receive.) Once the software is installed on Outlook, the user will see a new tab on Outlook's Options menu and a "Send Disappearing E-Mail" button when drafting a new message.
When the message is ready to go, click the Send Disappearing E-Mail button instead of the usual Send button, and the message is sent like any Outlook message.
When a recipient gets the message, it looks just like regular e-mail except for a notation that the message will disappear after a given period. If anyone attempts to read or reread the message after the expiration date and time, the message says it has expired. If a forensics expert tries to resurrect the message from a backup tape or fragments of a hard disk, he may find that a message was sent from one person to another, but he won't be able to read it.
If the recipient doesn't use Outlook, the message arrives as a hyperlink attachment with a note about expiration. Click on the hyperlink before the expiration time, and the message opens in your browser; after that, you'll see a message that says your e-mail has expired.
Disappearing e-mail can be installed for a minimum of $10,000 per year for 100 users.
A Web-based policy module gives your system administrator several options, including the ability to determine who is required to use the system -- all users or just specific people -- and set a maximum period for which a message will be available.
This module also lets users freeze the keys for all messages or a selected group of messages. This defeats the disappearing e-mail mechanism. However, it is useful if your company is hit with a subpoena, or litigation becomes a possibility, and your lawyers decide that e-mail is evidence and must not be destroyed.