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    Advice Columnist Talks About Privacy of E-mail

    I came across this advice column at and thought it might be of interest. The columnist responds to a person who snooped in another’s e-mail and now is in a dilemma.

    There was a cardinal rule when I was growing up that one never reads the private correspondence of others. This rule was taught to us children when mail consisted of letters written on paper and delivered sealed in envelopes. Written correspondence was a safe and private way for people to communicate their deepest thoughts and feelings without fear of discovery. It was protected speech. One had some control over how one’s words would be displayed. One could say, do not show this letter to anyone. Or one could say, read this letter aloud to everyone. One had some control.

    Now that so much private correspondence is sent via e-mail, we have lost that control, and the cardinal rule that one should never read another person’s mail is being eroded.

    We now live under a state and corporate system that sanction spying on individuals. We understand now that our e-mail is not private. If we learned that envelopes were routinely being steamed open and their contents read, we would be appalled. But we have come to accept a certain gray area in the realm of e-mail. The novelty of the technology and our ignorance about its workings have contributed to this, as has, perhaps, the seemingly evanescent nature of e-mail. This seeming evanescence is in truth a great illusion, as e-mail in fact is more long lasting than paper mail, leaving as it does traces on servers from its moment of sending, and being, in essence, a copy of itself from its inception, having no real permanent “original” like the original of a handwritten letter.

    This has been a rather long aside — on vengeance and on privacy! — but I have been planning for some time to address the question of reading other people’s e-mail, because so many domestic troubles arise from the unintended disclosure of secrets. People read each other’s e-mail and it leads to trouble. It’s as simple as that. So don’t do it. If you want to know something, ask. And if you want privacy, whisper!

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