Home > technology > Warning: Email Isn’t Private, Especially When You Send It to the Wrong People

Warning: Email Isn’t Private, Especially When You Send It to the Wrong People

Monday, July 18, 2011, 18:17 EST Leave a comment Go to comments

Like many people, I use Gmail. It isn’t my primary email service. But it’s useful for setting up an email address that protects my privacy. For example, the account name I use for email related to this blog is “denmother.” I also have another account that I use for purposes of online ordering and other things I fear might get me onto a list that is shared or sold. Being an earlycomer to Gmail, I was able to get my first initial and last name (i.e. “dmother,” except with using my real first initial and last name).

Apparently, many other people with the same first initial and last name have also signed up for Gmail in the hope of using that easy-to-remember account name. Upon finding out it was already taken, they tried variations, such as adding numbers on the end (dmother007) or adding a middle initial (dsmother). Unfortunately, a number of them seem to have forgotten their own personal variation and have been giving out my Gmail address as their own.

As a result, I’ve received other people’s soccer coaching information, minutes from a condominium association board meeting, reminders that the rent was overdue, statement notices about a merchant credit card account, business messages about a Canadian electric company, and even suggestive pictures. I usually delete the messages and presume that someone will realize the error. Occasionally, if the message looks like something important, I reply to the sender and point out the error, after which the misdirected emails cease.

The notable exception involves a flurry of emails I’ve received since last Friday. The first was ho-hum and I didn’t bother replying:

from: T******, A****** D.
to: [55 recipients – 53 with a New Jersey public school system email address, one with a Yahoo address, and me]
date: Fri, Jul 15, 2011 at 8:07 AM
subject: Power-School & Power-teacher

Good Morning,

At this time, Power-School and Power- Teacher are not working. I have notified Student Information Services and am awaiting their response.

Thank you,
A****** T******
Vice Principal
C****** High School Summer School
973-***-****

Interesting. Or not. I considered replying but realized that by the time I contacted Mr. Vice Principal, Power-School and Power-Teacher would probably be working again. No harm, no foul. I deleted the message.

Late this morning, I got another email from the same sender to the same lengthy list of recipients about another topic:

from: T******, A****** D.
to: [the same 55 recipients]
date: Mon, 18 Jul 2011 at 11:43 AM
subject: FW: T******* L*****

Good Morning Teachers,

Please have your grade-book updated.

I receive several calls a day from parents asking about their child’s academic progress.

The email below allowed me to clearly inform the parent that her son is Failing English IV and will not be receiving a diploma if he continues his current pattern.

Many teachers have BLANK grade-books. Please update your grade-books by the end of the day Thursday, July 18, 2011.

Thank you,
A****** T******
Vice Principal
E*** S*** High School
C****** High School Summer School
973-***-****

In the subject line was a student’s name. What was forwarded was the referenced email, which included the student’s mother’s phone number, as well as a screen shot of the students grades for the class:

  • Warm Up/Imagery – 0/100
  • Autobiographical Essay – 0/100
  • Story Elements for “The Pardoner’s Tale” – 0/100
  • Social Commentary – 0/100
  • Epic Hero Comic – 50/100
  • Dialectical Journal – 0/100
  • Modern Sonnet Journals and Skit – 75/100
  • Write and Perform Original Shakespearean Sonnet – 65/100
  • God Journal – 0/100
  • Bible as Lit. – 0/100
  • Children’s Book Prodigal Son – —/100

So the kid likes comics and poetry but blows off the other assignments. Got it.

But seriously, I was appalled that someone would be so careless as to send out student information and grades to an outside email address, even if it were the right one. Hasn’t this guy heard of hacking? Intercepted email? At 12:09 PM, less than a half hour after I got the offending message, I replied to all so that everyone would know not to continue the discussion without removing me from the distribution list.

from: [Me]
to: T******, A****** D. and [the other 54 recipients]
date: Mon, 18 Jul 2011 at 12:09 PM
subject: RE: T******* L*****

Fascinating, but I don’t think T******* L*****’s mother would appreciate this information being sent to a random non-teacher woman in Boston.

I keep getting ***** *********’s email from you folks. Would somebody please call ***** and ask him to give you his correct email address? *.*********@gmail.com (or **********@gmail.com) is not his address.

Thanks,
[My Name]

Even if the sender didn’t see the message right away—it was lunch time, after all—one of the other 54 recipients would see it, be as appalled by the breach of privacy as I was, and call Mr. Vice Principal. Right? Wrong:

from: T******, A****** D.
to: [the same 55 recipients]
date: Mon, 18 Jul 2011 at 12:27 PM
subject: Faculty Meeting

Good Afternoon,

We will have our last faculty meeting on Thursday, July 29, 2011. We will begin promptly at 1:20pm.

Thank you,
Vice Principal
E*** S*** High School
C****** High School Summer School
973-***-****

So much for the lunch break theory. I replied:

from: [Me]
to: T******, A****** D. and [the other 54 recipients]
date: Mon, 18 Jul 2011 at 12:39 PM
subject: RE: Faculty Meeting

Sorry, I can’t make it.

[My Name]

A few minutes later, as if on cue:

from: T******, A****** D.
to: [the same 55 recipients]
date: Mon, 18 Jul 2011 at 12:46 PM
subject: RE: Faculty Meeting

Correction,

Thursday, July 28, 2011

My turn:

from: [Me]
to: T******, A****** D. and [the other 54 recipients]
date: Mon, 18 Jul 2011 at 1:02 PM
subject: RE: Faculty Meeting

I can’t make it then, either.

Because I can do this all day if I have to. Hell, at that point I was just about ready to call student T.L.’s mother and tell her that the Vice Principal of her son’s school was sending his grade information out to unknown entities.

Alas, my fun was cut short:

from: T******, A****** D.
to: [the same 55 recipients]
date: Mon, 18 Jul 2011 at 2:09 PM
subject: RE: T******* L***** – Email has different SMTP TO: and MIME TO: fields in the email addresses

You will no longer be receiving any more emails

Thank you,
A****** T******
Vice Principal
E*** S*** High School
C****** High School Summer School
973-***-****

And that, children, is why my employer has a strict policy about sending business-related email outside the company (basically, we aren’t supposed to, at least until they finish the encryption program they’re working on). I admit thinking it was a stupid rule born of paranoia, but as of this morning I can see the wisdom in it.

Advertisements
Categories: technology
  1. No comments yet.
  1. No trackbacks yet.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s