Email privacy and ownership went wrong in the Petraeus case.

Who remembers this famous example of email privacy and ownership gone wrong?

Every so often some new scandal hits the news, and we remember to discuss the important topic of email privacy and ownership. Basic fact: people should NOT leave flirtatious, vexatious, threat-making, confidence-breaking, affair-revealing or secret-stealing messages in their drafts or sent mail – especially in their work email accounts!

We will go even further by advising that anyone who might ever be investigated by a spurned spouse or a suspicious employer – not to mention the FBI – should refrain from writing, saving or sending emails that could lead to divorce, unemployment, fines, jail or public ridicule. Here are a few timely reminders about email privacy and ownership:

  • In case it’s not obvious, your employer owns your company email account. That means your boss can seize control of it and all of its contents at any time. And deleting company emails that could become evidence in a future civil or criminal complaint is illegal.
  • Case law supports the view that emails you send out on the public Internet are public record, just like notes in the trash you place on the public curb. Finders, keepers. And perhaps finders, keepers, sharers, tipsters, tattle-talers.
  • It is wishful thinking that you can “delete forever” emails in your Gmail, Outlook or other email client. Doing so may hide them from the average snoop, but a court order or a hired-gun-forensics-guy is all it takes to undelete them.
  • Data security experts will tell you that the National Security Agency (NSA) permanently records most emails on NSA servers in case they are needed in an investigation. And even if you don’t believe the NSA is copying your emails, it is indisputable that most emails pass through 4 to 10 servers en route to the recipient, so chances are that months and years later copies still live on a server somewhere and can be found.
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