Proprietary Email

The net is rife with examples of email messages gone astray, such as

the infamous sexy note a British woman sent her boyfriend that spread

around the world. While no proprietary information was leaked, it

certainly was embarrassing for her and her employer. The lengthy

corporate statement that was appended to the mail made it even more



From the Stupid Management department, we learn that careless emails

can be costly as well. Neal Patterson, CEO of Cerner Corp., discovered

that Foot-in-Mouth disease spreads rapidly across the Internet after

firing off a blistering email cracking the whip on his managers.

Apparently, Mr. Patterson felt that the volume of cars in the company

parking lot was an indication of productivity. Wall Street disagreed,

and Cerner's stock tumbled 22% when the mail was posted on Yahoo!. Oops.

To counter these situations, some companies have started adding trailer

statements to all corporate emails, ranging from simple statements of

fact to threats of legal action if the mail is forwarded. Here is an

example of one trailer I have received (name of company and contact

info deleted):

"The information contained in this email is XXX confidential and is

intended only for the use of the named addressee. If the reader of

this message is not the named addressee, you are hereby notified

that any use of this email or its contents, including dissemination

or copying, is strictly prohibited. If you have received this email

in error, please notify the IT manager by telephone on xxxx xxx

xxxx or via email to helpdesk@xxxx, including a copy of this

message. Please then delete this email and destroy any copies."

Aside from looking stupid at the end of a forwarded joke, it's also

very embarrassing for the company claiming an offensive joke as

their "property".

Furthermore, the "confidentiality" notion is technologically ludicrous.

The mail lands on a system's mail spool that *does not belong to* the

addressee *and is not the property* of the addressee. Mail doesn't

travel from Point A to Point B without going through points X and Y,

and then landing at Point Z to retrieved by Point B. Thus, the entire

notion that only the intended recipient can "legally" receive the mail

runs counter to SMTP technology.

How legally binding are these statements to the mail's receipient? Not

very, according to Federal Defense Attorney Philip Weinstein. He

says, "It simply acts as a notice. It does no more legally, except

among lawyers who have rules concerning work -- product and privilege.

If there is a civil action, say a trade secret, [then] it simply tells

the receipient that the sender considers it a secret. They still have

to prove a cause of action." A distinction should be made between the

sender and the receiver's culpability. The statement applys to the

*receiver's* liability, not the person who sent it. An employer,

however, can hold an employee responsible for violating company rules

by sending inappropriate mail. Depending on the circumstances, the

consequences can include internal discipline, job loss, and legal


I often receive email from friends and colleagues that express their

opinions or insights on a technical subject. Nothing legally prevents

me from forwarding the mail without first asking permission, but I

usually ask anyway. Aside from the ethical issues, I value the

relationships and want to continue getting uncensored input. All too

often, a careless statement made to a friend can be taken out of

context or misunderstood.

One of the more intelligent decisions I made when I was in my early 20s

(and thought I knew everything) was to never post to Usenet

group. "Flame wars" could get very emotional and often reflected badly

on the employer of the offending poster. Some added a short disclaimer

to their mail stating that the opinions expressed were their own, not

necessarily their employer. Statements like this are sensible and

indisputable. Ponderous psuedo-legal trailers are unenforceable and

could backfire, making the company look bad -- especially if the mail

is *very* personal.

Here's my trailer:

"The information contained in this email is intended only for the

use of the named addressee. If the reader of this message is not

the named addressee, you are hereby notified that you must

immediately destroy this message and inform

swatteam@we'd_tell_you_but_we' Someone will

visit you shortly and remove all traces of the email from your

memory. You will also be sterilized to be certain that you do not

reproduce a memory of this email."

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