April 26, 2001, 12:00 AM — 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.