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
"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
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'd_have_to_kill_you.com. 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."