I received a copy of a forwarded copy of a posted copy of a private e-mail today which said the following in 12 point Times New Roman at the bottom underneath the signature of the second guy in the chain:
- Confidential Information: The information contained in this transmittal and accompanying documents is protected by both state and federal law. This information is intended only for the use of the individual or entity named above. If you are not the intended recipient, you are hereby notified that any disclosure, copying, distribution or action taken in reliance on the contents of this transmittal is strictly prohibited. If you have received this transmittal in error, please notify the sender immediately to arrange for return or destruction of these documents. The authorized recipient of this information is prohibited from disclosing this information to
any other party except as may be permitted by law, and is required to destroy the information after its intended purpose has been fulfilled, unless otherwise permitted by law.
So what in the name of the Information Highway is this all about? Does this guy really think this is going to deter people from sharing his e-mails with anyone they think ought to see it too? Let’s look at it piecemeal….
- "...is protected by both state and federal law.” Uh, huh. And how is it protected? The only federal law I could find are some vague things that prohibit people from stealing e-mail from your computer (unless the owner of the computer is your employer and owns the equipment you’re e-mailing from). There is, as far as the legal reviews I read this morning go, nothing that prohibits you from forwarding any e-mail that someone sends you unless you have a prior written nondisclosure agreement with that person. Of course, if that person or entity gives you money or does business with you and they find out you shared private e-mail communication with someone else they can quit doing business with you or something like that, but as far as I can tell, you won’t go to jail.
- “...you are hereby notified that any disclosure, copying, distribution or action taken in reliance on the contents of this transmittal is strictly prohibited.” Ya ha! You can say that, but is there anything you can really do to stop it. Besides, the organization that sent this is a quasi-government entity and is subject to the Freedom of Information Act. Trying to maintain that their communication about anything other than maybe employee salaries or stuff covered under the HIPAA Statute is privileged is laughable. If they are sharing genuinely confidential stuff, however, they better have a confidentiality agreement with whoever they are sharing it with. I think anything available under the Freedom of Information Act is fair game. What do you think? Talk amongst yourselves……
- “The authorized recipient of this information is prohibited from disclosing this information to any other party except as may be permitted by law, and is required to destroy the information after its intended purpose has been fulfilled, unless otherwise permitted by law.” Which, without a prior nondisclosure agreement between you and the person who accidentally sent this puppy to their entire e-mail list, you don’t have a legal leg to stand on. In short the disclaimer pretty much means zip! And since I’m a packrat (just ask my wife), I ain’t destroyin’ nothing that’s juicy enough to need this disclaimer on it.
Ultimately, the gentleman who posted the e-mail with the long disclaimer would have been better served if he’d merely asked (politely) if the recipient would keep it to him or herself. E-mail, like handwritten notes or any other printed or electronically generated information goes out there and whether it goes to someone who wasn’t supposed to get it or not, depends on whether the recipient wants to keep your secret or not. The poster above could learn a lesson from journalists and PR people. To wit, these guidelines:
- Loose lips sink ships! Anything you say can and will be used against you in the newspaper or on radio, TV and the Internet. So be careful what you say! Don’t spout off unless you want to be quoted.
- There is no “…off the record”. Unless the reporter is prepared to go to jail for you, you are going to get found out. If you send a note with a disclaimer like the one above to someone who thinks you’re up to no good, how long do you think your note is going to remain private? About as long as one of those “Don’t tell anybody else, but I heard…” stories that buzzed around school like a prairie fire back in 7th grade.
- Threats you can’t carry out against people who know something that can hurt you only make those people more likely to rat you out! Unfortunately, Enzyte doesn’t make a “natural credibility enhancement” pill you can take to recover from this one.
As Leyden (1995) observed (http://uwadmnweb.uwyo.edu/COJO/WILTSE/privacy.htm) :
- Cyberspace is not all that different from the everyday world. The same law-abiding people who stop at traffic lights are navigating the electronic terrain. The force that stops someone from tearing open a letter or bill or check delivered through the U.S. mail is not the flimsy envelope: It's purely social convention and the vague threat of violating a federal law. Similar conventions and vague threats generally protect the integrity of electronic information, whether it's e-mail or databases.
But there really isn’t a standard that says, if I send you a letter, you can’t show it to other people. People will keep your notes confidential if they trust you because it’s polite to do so and if it’s in their own interest not to share the content of your communication. I have some e-mail communications that I routinely read and delete (and/or shred in the case of written notes) when I receive them because I have an agreement that in exchange for my ability to communicate freely with that person behind the scenes, I’ll never, never, share those communications with anyone else (no matter how tempted I am to do that).
If you start tagging your everyday e-mails with disclaimers like the one above you risk:
- Angering your friends for assuming they will blab unless you made a vague threat to prosecute them if they did.
- Flagging your notes as “full of juicy stuff that would be cool to spread around”.
- Reducing your credibility with people who know that you’re talking absolute balderdash and haven’t a legal leg to stand on.
- Seeming impolite for sending someone a note that obligates them to protect your secret stuff when you never asked them if they’d mind keeping your e-mail on the QT in the first place.
Did you’re Mama never teach you manners?
Just one man’s opinion….
Confidential Information: The information in this e-mail is protected by my cousin Guido (who will come to your house and work you over with the blunt end of a summer sausage if he finds out you finked on me to the man). Anything I said in here that can be used against me in court, in the news media or at any board meeting held in the upstairs room at Rick's Blues Bar is confidential. All recipients of e-mail from me are expected to purchase expensive file shredding software and destroy this message utterly after you have committed its contents to heart. You are further enjoined not to reveal the contents of this message to anyone even if you have to die under torture to protect me. (Hey, if you didn't want the responsibility, you should never have opened this file in the first place!)