Daily RC Article 77

Email privacy


Paragraph 1

Most office workers assume that the messages they send to each other via electronic mail are as private as a telephone call or a face-to-face meeting. That assumption is wrong. Although it is illegal in many areas for an employer to eavesdrop on private conversations or telephone calls—even if they take place on a company-owned telephone—there are no clear rules governing electronic mail. In fact, the question of how private electronic mail transmissions should be has emerged as one of the more complicated legal issues of the electronic age.

Paragraph 2

People’s opinions about the degree of privacy that electronic mail should have vary depending on whose electronic mail system is being used and who is reading the messages. Does a government office, for example, have the right to destroy electronic messages created in the course of running the government, thereby denying public access to such documents? Some hold that government offices should issue guidelines that allow their staff to delete such electronic records, and defend this practice by claiming that the messages thus deleted already exist in paper versions whose destruction is forbidden. Opponents of such practices argue that the paper versions often omit such information as who received the messages and when they received them, information commonly carried on electronic mail systems. Government officials, opponents maintain, are civil servants; the public should thus have the right to review any documents created during the conducting of government business.

Paragraph 3

Questions about electronic mail privacy have also arisen in the private sector. Recently, two employees of an automotive company were discovered to have been communicating disparaging information about their supervisor via electronic mail. The supervisor, who had been monitoring the communication, threatened to fire the employees. When the employees filed a grievance complaining that their privacy had been violated, they were let go. Later, their court case for unlawful termination was dismissed; the company’s lawyers successfully argued that because the company owned the computer system, its supervisors had the right to read anything created on it.

Paragraph 4

In some areas, laws prohibit outside interception of electronic mail by a third party without proper authorization such as a search warrant. However, these laws do not cover “inside” interception such as occurred at the automotive company. In the past, courts have ruled that interoffice communications may be considered private only if employees have a “reasonable expectation” of privacy when they send the messages. The fact is that no absolute guarantee of privacy exists in any computer system. The only solution may be for users to scramble their own messages with encryption codes; unfortunately, such complex codes are likely to undermine the principal virtue of electronic mail: its convenience.

Topic and Scope:

Electronic mail (“e-mail”); specifically, How secure should e-mail be from the prying eyes of employers, both public and private?

Purpose and Main Idea:

The author seeks to explore what she describes up front as “one of the more complicated legal issues of the electronic age.” The passage mentions some of its ramifications but ends on a highly ambivalent and uncertain note, with no “main idea” per se, emerging except, perhaps, that the whole situation is a big mess.

Paragraph Structure:

Paragraph 1 lays out the issue that in the absence of clear rules, such as those relating to private talk or phone calls, e-mail privacy is an open question. Paragraph 2 is devoted to government employers and Paragraph 3 to private sector ones, but these are not so much contrasted as used to illustrate different aspects of the same overall problem. The former, for instance, have to balance the destruction of e-mail versus the public’s right-to-know, and Paragraph 2 explains different viewpoints: Some folks are confident that having hard-copy (paper) versions of email makes it O.K. to trash the electronic messages, while others are skeptical that hard copy is truly equivalent.

Bosses in the private sector, who are not concerned with the public’s rights, have their own headaches. Paragraph 3 explores one of them through a case study of two workers who were fired when the supervisor intercepted insulting e-mail, and whose lawsuit for wrongful termination was denied by the courts. (The author draws no conclusion from this case, however.)

Paragraph 4 considers possible solutions, but as we might expect from “one of the more complicated legal issues of the electronic age,” we’re presented with no easy answers. The author’s best suggestion—to allow workers to scramble their messages in order to protect their privacy—comes at a terrible price, the loss of the convenience that makes e-mail desirable in the first place.

The Big Picture:

  • As you work your way through a passage, don’t lose sight of the bigger picture; keep relating what you read to the promises made and issues raised as the passage began.
  • Never assume that every author must take a strong stand on a given topic; never assume that every passage contains a “main idea.” Some passages, like this one, simply describe situations and difficulties and the author chooses not to commit herself on them. Assuming that she must take a stand makes you vulnerable to many distorted wrong-answer choices.
  • Always make an effort to clearly define the scope and purpose of each Paragraph . Doing so will help you locate the source of answers quickly.

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