Watch What You Write/Someone Could Be Watching You

  1. Interesting article on e-mails. Maybe it should apply to posting on BB too.

    No escape button

    By Bettijane Levine
    Los Angeles Times

    Why can't we behave? When the risks are huge and the potential consequences dire, why can't we stop ourselves from typing those suicidal e-mails, hitting the send key and sealing our doom?

    This month, it's West Virginia Gov. Bob Wise's turn to ponder those questions. Until a few weeks ago, incumbent Wise was a shoo-in as Democratic candidate in his state's next gubernatorial election. Now, members of his own party are suggesting he resign; Republicans are savoring their improved chances-and Wise, 55, has proved he is anything but.

    The reckless fingers of fate-his own-may have typed him right out of the governor's office. And his cyber-trail of decidedly unromantic e-mails to a state employee with whom some believe he was romantically involved are making him something of a literary laughingstock as well.

    Wise is alleged to have had a relationship with Angela Mascia-Frye, 35, of the West Virginia Development Corp. Both are married-to other people. And they corresponded by e-mail with the kind of dull propriety that one Web wag described as having all the passion of a tuna sandwich. (The most intimate missives are like this one, from Mascia-Frye to Wise: "Too bad you canceled your visit at our offices. We made special coffee for you today." And like this, from the governor: "Sorry to have missed you tonight at Alex's ... I walked around for an hour ... and called out your name in 5 languages").

    There is no proof in the messages that they had a sexual affair-nor has either of them admitted specifics of their relationship. But the mere fact that the governor and his alleged paramour engaged in extensive e-mail conversation-541 of their messages have been retrieved and released to the public, under the Freedom of Information Act-has put them in harm's way. Mascia-Frye's husband has filed for divorce, and the governor's wife has released a statement saying she is "angry" and their two children are "disappointed" in Wise but still love him.

    And so one more casualty of the electronic highway has crashed and burned. Wise certainly isn't the first and won't be the last. (This probably won't happen to President Bush, who reportedly was advised before his inauguration to avoid e-mail entirely while in office. He is said to have sent messages to his friends, telling them he'd be using snail mail during his tenure, because of security risks.)

    Lesson One: E-mail is never private. And never totally secure. It is indelible and will not be erased when you hit "delete." Somewhere, it will continue to exist in cyberspace. No matter what you do to protect yourself, experts say, e-mail is more exposed than messages on postcards. It is the equivalent of talking on a party line. Your password, no matter how obscure, does not protect you from hackers, snoops or any officer with a warrant to subpoena your e-mails in professional or personal legal matters, such as divorce and custody cases.

    Lesson Two: Experts say most people know this rule but continue to ignore it. Ask yourself before you e-mail any message: Would I feel comfortable writing this in longhand, signing my name to it and putting it in a mailbox? If the answer is no, don't put it in an electronic message.

    Bill Gates, the Big Daddy of computing, didn't follow this rule and was hugely embarrassed as a result. If he couldn't keep himself out of trouble, what makes you think you can?

    In the huge antitrust case against Microsoft, Gates was seen worldwide on CNN, admitting that, yes, he had sent the extremely damaging e-mails that were presented in court and that essentially established that his company had engaged in anti-competitive business practices.

    In the Iran-Contra affair of the late '80s, it was Oliver North's e-mail that helped prove that funds had been diverted to unauthorized projects. More recently, in the Enron meltdown, it was executive e-mails within the company that were used to document claims of improper practices.

    In the early days of computers, most people's technological tragedies stemmed from simple mistakes, like hitting the wrong button. Linda Ellerbee, author and TV producer, began her career as a journalist for the Associated Press in Dallas. In 1972, she wrote a letter to a friend, which she later described as follows: "I expressed myself candidly about the Dallas City Council, the city of Dallas, the Vietnam War, a man I was dating and, naturally, my employer." She hit "send" and mistakenly sent her missive out over the AP news wire. She was promptly fired.

    Why do people engage in such risky business? Why can't they keep their itchy digits off the keyboard when they feel the urge to say something that could come back and bite them?

    Attorney Michael Overly, a partner in the Los Angeles office of Foley & Lardner, is an expert on e-mail privacy and the author of books on electronic evidence and use of technology in the workplace. He says problems are pervasive worldwide, and most people still toss off sensitive e-mails without realizing their "incredible importance as lasting forms of communication and as an incredibly damaging source of evidence."

    When Overly lectures, he tries to convey to clients "just how indelible their e-mails are. People need to understand that despite company policy that may say e-mail is deleted after 30 days, it is by no means gone. We've seen lots of instances where executives, including Mr. Gates, have believed their e-mails were deleted long ago-until they're sitting in court and having those same e-mails presented as evidence."

    Some companies are working on ways to permanently erase e-mail messages, or impose an expiration on them, after which they will be irretrievable.

    One technique, Overly says, sends the message to an intermediary company, where it is encrypted before arriving at its destination. When the e-mail is opened, it goes back to the intermediary to find the encryption key. After 30 days, the key is destroyed. One problem, so far, has been that recipients can make copies of the text, which nullifies security measures.

    Usually, it's the smarter, more sophisticated and highly placed individuals who get themselves in the most trouble, in Overly's experience. Even though there have been dozens of highly publicized cases, and these people intellectually know the pitfalls and permanence of e-mail, they tend to perceive their own messages as ephemeral-here today and gone tomorrow.

    "They truly believe it will disappear, no matter what we tell them. And when these people get emotional or angry about something, they just let go with their emotions. Stuff they'd never send if they had to write it the old-fashioned way-they just tap it out on the keyboard, hit the button and it's gone. With no way to take it back. No possibility of recall. People think to themselves, 'I'm a senior executive, I should be able to say what I want.' Type type and gone. 'I'm a doctor, I have a right to say what I think.' Type type and gone. 'I'm Bill Gates. I can say it.' Gone."

    Cases of sexual harassment against big companies have proliferated, according to public documents, perhaps because e-mail has made them easier to prove. A multimillion-dollar settlement against a subsidiary of Chevron was based, in part, on an e-mail listing 12 reasons why beer is better than women. It was something no one would ever hang on an office wall, Overly says, but it was freely distributed by e-mail.

    The New York Times fired 22 staff members for sending and forwarding dirty jokes in 1999, Overly says. Dow Chemical, at about the same time, fired 75 employees for inappropriate jokes. In December 2000, Computer Associates fired an undisclosed number of employees for e-mailing sexually explicit jokes.

    "We tell clients, when they're considering these mass firings of employees, that they'd better be very careful," Overly says. "They'd better be prepared to also fire their most senior managers, corporate officers and directors. In all likelihood, you will find some of those people have committed the same offense."

    * Gayle Pollard-Terry contributed to this article.
  2. 7 Comments

  3. by   Ted
    This post reminds me of a job I once had.

    I used to work for a State agency that relied heavily on emails for communication between co-workers and the agency's "clients".

    We were constantly reminded to keep our emails 100% business related. That even meant no personal emails at all.

    Co-workers were getting warnings from management just for sending "benign" yet personal emails unrelated to the agency's business. (No dirty jokes were involved that I was aware of, anyway.)

    Someone was reading the emails!

    And always contained in these warning messages were reminders that stated: 1) All computers were government property and 2) All emails (to the "clients") were legal documents (that could be used in court).

    Needless to say. . . I NEVER sent a personal (non-work related) message from that job.

    Was "Big Brother" justified to hold such strict standards on emails?

    I say yes.

    I've got a computer at home which I can use.
  4. by   Ted
    The hospital where I work has a rather large network of computers.

    Interestingly, few, if any, employees have email accounts associated with the hospital. "Appropriate" email messages isn't really an issue.

    Besides being networked to eachother . . . and to our "sister hospital", my hospital has network access to the W W W.

    Because our happy little hospital is a . . . well. . . ummm. . . happy LITTLE hospital, one tends to have a fair amount of free time. Especially if one works the night shift. And extra especially when one only has one patient who usually safely sleeps with their heart a-beatin' (except for last night. . . one patient's heart did stop beating. . . which was a good thing for this end-stage AML-diagnosed, DNR/DNI, bone-pained patient )

    At one point, we were discouraged from using the internet. Notices were sent stating that we're not to use the internet for our own personal surfing and that we were being watched!

    That didn't last long.

    One brave night supervisor stood up for us and basically said, "It's hard for these nurses to be kept awake at 3:00 in the morning. What harm is it to the sleeping patient??" . . . who is being closely watched with monitors, frequent checks, etc (and she did share that indeed we were watching our patients!!!). . . . if they spend time on the internet???? They get the job done (which we do). And if all the work is getting done, why not allow them to surf if it meant keeping them awake at the job?!?!?!? (I never fall asleep when I surf! Charting, on the other hand. . . . . . . . )

    We're now able to surf the web at night once our work is finished!!!

    You can probably guess where I spend most of my internet time.

    Why not?!?!? It's a nice place to hang out!

    But does anyone go to those funky porn sites?!?!?!?!?

    No! Not that I'm aware of, anyway.

    Someone is keeping track where we go!

    The hospital has made it clear through policy and messages that "inappropriated sites" will not be tolerated and will result in some kind of disclipinary (sp?) action. They also reminded us who owns the computers and who is the employer and who is the employee. . . yadda, yadda, yadda. . . . .

    Does "Big Brother" hospital have the right to censor our internet surfing??


    It's their computers and internet/network service. And I have my own computer to use at home.

    Last edit by Ted on Jun 16, '03
  5. by   Ted
    The Government!

    "Who says the government is getting smaller?!?!?!?"

    The government is just "down-sizing" the WRONG agencies!
  6. by   Mkue
    Interesting article Gomer, it really makes one think twice before e-mailing from work

    I'm currently not working but plan on staying away from the internet when I do.

    I feel that companies have a right to read employee e-mail. If I owned a business I would want to know what my employees were doing during working hours, breaks are another story though.
  7. by   passing thru
    On that governor and the state employee female,
    it reminded me of Clinton and the dogs he dated........

    the governors' mistress is plainer and homelier
    than_____________________ ..real homely..
    trust me, and the gov has confessed,

    "I was unfaithful." It was (natch) front page news.

    Of course, the gov. ain't no Clinton....
    at least Clinton was cute & a little sexy...
  8. by   pickledpepperRN
    We are allowed to use the net on breaks only. So I clock out and feel free to go on line for 30 minutes. Trouble is there are often questions from doctors, reports from the lab, or calls from family. My fellow workers won't get me if it is the ER with an admit, it can wait 30 minutes.
    Once I mentioned in a staff meerting that there was a question regarding isolation the Procedure manual did not address. I looked it up on the CDC site. My manager winked as she said, "I'm sure you were on your break."
    Sticky. SHE could be in trouble for my looking up information that could help a patient.
    My big problem is using a computer in a closed unit when I should go home and sleep. Their computers are just so much faster and download attachments mine at home won't. I NEVER send e- mails from work although we all have an e- dress. Only answer factual questions from management. Not like the annoying posts on this BB.
    Sorry, I may delete this BORING post. after waking up.
  9. by   SmilingBluEyes
    seems like a no-brainer to me.

    but that is just the problem. some don't USE their brains.