Email is private, right?
When you email with a friend or colleague, you may imagine that your conversation is private, but email is actually not private or secure. For example, if you send an email to me, your message passes through a number of computers as it makes its way from yours to mine, and while it's just one of billions of messages sent in any given day, it could be examined at any number of points along the way. There is also likely to be a stored copy of that email on your computer (in your Sent email folder), in the backups that are probably done on the computers it has passed through, and on my computer as well, so anyone with access to any of those machines might find your email and read it. Also, if your computer or mine is on an unsecured wireless connection, someone snooping nearby might also read your email.
Also, according to the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse (http://www.privacyrights.org/fs/fs7-work.htm
) if you send or receive email in a workplace, since you're using company equipment your employer probably has the legal right to examine your email.
You could "encrypt" your email, making your messages unreadable to anyone other than your intended recipient, but these techniques are so complicated that average computer users probably won't use them. A simpler solution is to write your private message in a separate document, encrypt it with a password, and then send this encrypted file as an attachment. Then, your recipient can unlock it with the password, which you would send to them separately, ideally not
My practical perspective is this: Every day there are billions of email messages sent, so the chances of any one of yours being read by someone else (who isn't specifically interested in you) is very small, so be aware of it but don't let this issue worry you needlessly.
Email arrives immediately, right?
There are many variables that affect how long an email takes to arrive. For example, here's what happens if you send an email to me:
- When you click Send, your computer gives your email to your outgoing email server, typically your ISP (internet service provider), e.g., Verizon.
- Your ISP tries to contact my email server directly, e.g., Comcast. If it can, then it delivers your email to my mailbox.
- If it can't (perhaps my server is busy or down for maintenance), then it tries to contact my email server's first backup server, then its second, etc. If it reaches one of those, then that server will try to contact my primary server.
- During this process, if my primary server doesn't respond, the server that's got your email will try again later, up to several days, until it either moves your email along or gives up.
- Ultimately, your email either arrives in my mailbox or the process fails.
This is why email sometimes takes much longer to arrive than you'd think. You could send me 3 emails just a few minutes apart, and the first one might take days to arrive in my mailbox, the second one might fail to arrive at all, and the third one might arrive in my mailbox within minutes, actually arriving before the first one!
Of course, this doesn't include the time it takes me to go to my computer, open my email software, and download the accumulated email from my mailbox onto my computer and actually read it.
Email always get there, right?
In the process I described above, you'd think that you'd be notified when an email ultimately fails to be delivered. While some servers do report delivery failure errors back to the sender, some don't. So, even if you haven't received a failure message back you still can't really be sure that any email you've sent has actually arrived.
Some email programs let you mark messages you send with a "return receipt," but this isn't a guaranteed mechanism. It's a request
to the recipient's email program to send you a little confirmation message as soon as the other person has opened your message. However, some email programs simply ignore this mark, and others ask for approval before sending you the receipt, so the other person can (and often will) refuse.
If you really need to know that a message has arrived, I suggest you write "please send me a reply so I'll know you received this message" in your email, or contact your recipient by phone.
Oddly enough, some of the time you may get a "failed to deliver" message back when, in fact, your message was actually delivered just fine.
Spam filters can also interfere with email arrival. They can have "false positives" and end up mistakenly capturing legitimate email. You might have spam filtering software running on your computer, and your email server or ISP might have a spam filter that operates "upstream" from your computer, filtering your email before it ever gets to your computer.
Where to go from here
- Don't send extremely private information via email, especially passwords, social security numbers, or credit card information.
- Don't use email for last-minute communication. Use the phone!
- Don't assume email will always get there. Follow up on important unanswered emails. If you receive a failure message back, try sending your message again.
- If someone has sent you something important or useful, send a reply so they'll know you got it.
- Learn what spam filters your computer or ISP might have, and how to turn them on or off.
- If you're interested in a well-written article that explains more about how email really works, read this one from Erik Kangas, President of Lux Scientiae: http://luxsci.com/extranet/articles/email-security.html
If you know someone else who might find this helpful, please feel free to forward it to them.
If you have any comments about this article, send me a reply!
If you have a topic that you'd like me to write about, I'd love to hear about it!