Anna-Lisa Paul and Bobie-Lee Dixon
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Defending the inbox
In spite of the rise of social media and instant messaging, e-mail remains one of the most dominant communications and file transport tools used in business today. It is easy to use, and most users have a high level of confidence that their e-mail will be delivered safely to intended recipients. But this perception does not always line up with reality. Even as e-mail usage is expected to grow to over 4.3 billion accounts by 2016, it is still based on a relatively antiquated set of protocols. As usage grows, so do the threats that confidential information can be compromised. In the digital age can data compromise can come at a hefty financial and reputational price.
How e-mail works
E-mail is often likened to postal mail. We write our messages, dispatch them and they are delivered to their destination address. We can send copies to third parties and save a copy for our records. To understand e-mail privacy, though, there is an important difference to keep in mind.
Unlike a letter that is physically carried physically from post box to post office, to post office to mail slot, an e-mail message is routed over the Internet by being copied from server to server until it reaches its destination mailbox. Most significantly, unless an e-mail is encrypted, these copies are transmitted in plainly legible text.
This raises two important considerations. First, on its way to its eventual destination, copies of your e-mail might end up in a number of places on the Internet, possibly including servers monitored by hackers or intelligence services. Second, though unlikely for most people, it not really possible to verify the integrity of e-mail you send and receive unless it is encrypted. This means that an e-mail you receive from an address you know, may have been modified along the way or forged altogether. Most users will not be able to discern the difference.