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Since the dawn of the written word and throughout history, humans have been devising new and better ways to send messages to others who are far away. Ancient civilizations used couriers who traveled by foot or by horseback to deliver letters. The U.S. postal service was created in the early days of our country to transport our written communications. In the 1800s, those letters traveled by stagecoach, Pony Express, railroad and steamship.

In the early days, you had to take the letter to the post office to mail it and the recipient had to go to the post office to pick it up. Later (mid-1800s), the postal service delivered mail to residencies – first only in the cities, then to rural areas as motor vehicles became common. The twentieth century brought us air mail, as well as some innovative ideas that never quite panned out (such as the delivery of mail via guided missile, with which the Navy experimented in the 50s). (For more info on the history of U.S. Postal Service, click here.)

Today, there are many ways to get our messages through, whether we’re sending them next door or all the way around the world. Many of us routinely circumvent the post office (and private delivery services) altogether by sending most of our written communications via email. It’s a lot faster, a lot easier and a lot cheaper. What’s not to like? (For a brief history of the development of email, click here.)

Trouble is, because it’s so much quicker, many of us write much more informally in email than we do in “real” letters. Yet many of us also seem to assume that we have the same level of privacy as we have with our postage-paid letters. And as we use email more and more for both business and personal communications, that can become a problem.

I’ve said it many times before, but it bears repeating: your email is at least as public as sending a postcard through the “snail mail” – which anyone whose hands it happens to pass through can read. Yet many folks continue to act as if they can say anything they want in email without consequences, despite the many news stories detailing how people’s email messages have been used against them in civil and criminal actions.

Note: Although there are still federal laws against opening someone else’s mail, snail mail, too, is becoming less private all the time. Particularly, the government has taken steps to make anonymity more difficult. Renting post office boxes or even mail boxes run by private companies now requires furnishing identification, and in 2003 the Presidential Commission on the Postal service called for a way to identify the sender of every piece of mail as a way to improve national security. A concept called “intelligent mail,” supported by Pitney Bowes and others, advocates implementing a system that can provide information about senders, recipients and even contents of postal mail. While it has advantages such as the ability to track your mail, it also has privacy implications that worry some.

But back to email: many people believe that the National Security Agency (NSA) reads all of our email. The sheer volume of electronic mail that goes across the Internet every day makes that unlikely, but it would certainly be possible to intercept and send mail through filtering software to flag messages that appear to be “of interest” to the government. Last month, Bruce Schneier’s blog quoted some instructions from Richard M. Smith on how to test whether your mail is being monitored. Click here.

You don’t have to be a super secret, well funded spy agency to read other people’s mail, though. Network administrators do it all the time, “just for fun.” Your employer has the legal right to snoop in the mail you send from or receive on company machines or via your company email account. And there’s a plethora of real spyware software available that can be used by suspicious spouses, concerned parents or curious friends or co-workers who want to know what you’re up to.

Even knowing all this, folks continue to say things in email that can come back to haunt them later. And getting fired, divorced, arrested or at least humiliated because of it. When you hit that Send button, you really never know who will end up eventually seeing your dirty jokes, derogatory comments about your boss, love letters, or other self-incriminating information. It’s often been said that you shouldn’t put anything in email that you would be ashamed to see on the front page of the newspaper and, indeed, that’s where it might wind up. Or on a public Web site for any and everyone to peruse. For example, you can search through hundreds of thousands of email messages that were sent to and from former Enron executives and employees here.

Is encryption the solution? Despite the availability of low-cost email encryption technologies, few people encrypt the email that they send. There are undoubtedly many reasons: lack of knowledge about encryption options, plain old laziness, the belief that if you aren’t doing anything wrong (i.e., illegal), you don’t need to hide what you’re doing. Yet another reason encryption has never really caught on among the general email-sending public is interoperability. Both sender and recipient need to have the software for encrypting and decrypting mail, and you can’t assume that all or even most of the people with whom you exchange mail will be able to decrypted your encrypted communications.

Many experts say encryption won’t become standard until it’s built into the popular email clients and Webmail services and made transparent to the user. That is, it should be as simple as clicking a button to encrypt a message (no having to fuss with installing extra software or obtaining a digital certificate).

But it’s also likely that many people don’t use encryption simply because it’s not in widespread use. This makes those messages that are encrypted stand out like a sore thumb. Encrypting your mail may actually raise suspicions where there were none before. However, if you’d like to give encryption a try, here’s a link that tells you how to do it using PGP (Pretty Good Privacy).

What do you think?

Deb Shinder