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Computer Central

Protecting the privacy of your email
Scripps Howard News Service


February 20, 2006

I get a lot of mail from people who are concerned about their privacy. One question is: Can other people read my e-mail?

The answer, of course, is yes. If you send mail from work on a company-owned computer, you should assume it is being read by others. A good rule of thumb is don't put anything in e-mail that you would not want on the company bulletin board. (And e-mail, as some people have learned, is subject to discovery in a lawsuit.) Company officials have the right to read your mail, scan it for certain keywords or just log it. It's their equipment.

The simple rule is don't put personal stuff on company computers, period.

What about home computers? While this is more difficult, your mail is not all that secure there, either. Any nerd at your Internet Service Provider can read your mail. The FBI or police (hopefully armed with a warrant) can read your mail.

And people can go "back in time" using the backup tapes on your ISP's server, to get mail you thought was deleted.

Even "deleted" mail and files on your hard drive can be pretty easily retrieved with the correct tool and some talent. Nothing on a hard drive is truly erased until the disks are removed from the metal case and then shredded in an industrial shredder.

If you are concerned about this sort of thing, you may want to consider "encryption" software. This is not something for beginners (or those with AOL e-mail accounts), but this is a way to keep your information relatively private.

One software package is called PGP, or "Pretty Good Privacy." It integrates with major e-mail programs such as Outlook, Outlook Express, Lotus Notes and Eudora. You can download it from the PGP Security Web site (in the downloads section).

What the software does is install optional encryption technology into your e-mail program. You use it for every message you send or just those you pick. Once you install the software, you are issued two "keys." One is your "public" key, which you share with people with whom you correspond. The second is your "private" key, which you use to read and send your messages.

It works like this: If you are using Outlook Express, for example, your new message window now has three new icons, "Launch PGP Keys," "Encrypt" and "Sign." The first keeps the keys from your correspondents handy on a so-called "key ring."

The Encrypt command scrambles your outgoing messages using the recipient's public key on your key ring. When they get it, they use their private key to read it.

The Sign function works like a digital signature, assuring the recipient the note came from you.

What privacy buffs enjoy most is that even when your mail resides on a server (or your hard drive) the notes are still encrypted and cannot be read without the password. There's also a "Wipe" function that purports to remove all traces of a file or message from your hard drive. I somehow imagine the FBI has found a way around that, though.

There are other tools out there, of course, but you can look at PGP if you Google it. It is available from many Web sites.


James Derk is co-owner of CyberDads, a computer repair company, and a computer columnist for Scripps Howard News Service.
His e-mail address is jim(at)

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