In the Middle Ages, important documents were closed using wax seals to prevent unauthorized access before they reached their intended recipient. Those letters (or perhaps just junk mail) in your mail box have arrived sealed by glue for generations. It is safe to say the concept of protecting our private written word is nothing new. But what protects my e-mail from prying eyes?
1. The Law
The Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution says the “right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated”. In layman’s terms, it protects your privacy from unauthorized intrusion. Additionally, at least ten states offer further rights to privacy in their state constitutions.
Law enforcement is not able to acquire your e-mail without proper legal process. This usually involves a search warrant, where they must establish probable cause to satisfy the judge.
Initially, e-mail was transported in plain text. This made it a bit too easy for unauthorized electronic eavesdropping. Fortunately for us, transport encryption was developed. It protects the content of your message while it is travelling through the vast network of servers. When it reaches its destination, encryption on the receiver’s end puts it back into a readable format. The best part is all this happens seamlessly without the need to break out your Little Orphan Annie decoder ring.
3. Privacy Settings
If you use a free web-based e-mail service, you might occasionally notice advertisements appearing on the page that eerily match up with some of the contents of your Inbox. How do they know I just put in an order at Hot Topic? This is called contextual advertising. Your e-mail and web activity are tracked to produce ads targeted to your tastes. While this is completely allowable under the protections listed in Part One, most providers understand users’ desire for additional privacy and let you opt out. The Denver Post has compiled a handy list of ways to opt out of this content.
The most important guardian of your e-mail privacy is you. Most e-mail accounts are unauthorizedly accessed due to mistakes by the account holder. Is your e-mail password “password123”? Do you click on suspicious links you receive in your Inbox? Then you are essentially leaving the door open to e-mail intruders.
Make sure to use passwords that are not easy to guess (avoid things like your child’s name, your birthday, etc.), and that involve a combination of numbers, symbols, lower-case and upper-case letters. Change passwords regularly. Be wary of clicking on links in e-mail messages that may take you to phishing sites. Don’t give your password to anyone, even if they claim to be from a provider or someone you do business with. They are never going to ask you to provide your password.
As the way we share our written words continues to evolve, privacy doesn’t have to be compromised. By combining the protections of law, technology and common sense we can continue to enjoy the fruits of communication in the digital age.