The Growing E-Mail Confidence Crisis

Michael Vizard

There is a general crisis in confidence among e-mail users these days. Just about everywhere you go, you hear people talking about not putting anything sensitive in that format. Their concerns stem from two factors: The first involves potential subpoenas of e-mail in future lawsuits, and the second has to do with hackers accessing those messages.

The two most recent examples of both scenarios coming back to bite someone in the butt involve executives from Dell and prominent researchers of global warming trends.

It turns out that some Dell executives didn't have a lot of faith in its direct-sales model as far back as 2005. Dell was flying high then, as the purveyor of a build-to-order model thought to be transforming the PC industry. During the course of several lawsuits between Intel and AMD, it came to light that at least some Dell executives thought its direct-sales-only model was unsustainable. Subsequent events appear to have borne out their fears and Dell now sells PCs both directly and through outlets ranging from retail to resellers in the channel. But Dell may have to answer some embarrassing questions about to what degree it misled investors about its strategy.

The second high-profile e-mail gaffe involves global warming researchers at the University of East Anglia in the United Kingdom. Their e-mail exchanges are being used to cast doubt on the validity of their research. While everyone is arguing about the context of those e-mails and the need for more secure messaging systems, the fact remains that if a hacker had not illegally gained access to those files, there would be no crisis. And perhaps more significantly, if they were not stored somewhere in the first place, there would be no files to access.

You can argue that all this really means is that companies need a more consistent approach to deleting files as part of their compliance strategy.

But in the meantime, one of the side effects of all these embarrassing gaffes is that more people now pick up the phone to talk to each other, given that most people are not sure where an e-mail message ultimately will wind up. Of course, if the conversation is taking place over an IP network, chances are there's a server somewhere containing a record of it.

These legitimate and illegitimate intrusions into e-mail systems will have people using e-mail and other IT communications and collaboration tools for only for the most routine business activities. That's an understandable shame. But couple the legal hassles with the general feeling that none of our data is really secure in these systems, and you can hardly blame anybody for reverting to using the phone. At least with it, a court order for specific phone numbers is required to hang you using your own words.

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