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I t's hard to believe we once lived without it. Yet today more than 50 million Americans use e-mail at home and at work. This year, 2.6 trillion messages will flicker across U.S. computer networks. Some of those messages may be yours. But how much do you really know about e-mail, especially as it concerns your job and personal privacy?
     Here's the quick answer: E-mail is as private as a postcard. Anyone can read it, anywhere along the way. And that can have some unintended--sometimes even tragic--consequences. The galaxies of cyberspace are brimming with e-mail horror stories ranging from hurt feelings to job loss to divorce.
     Today, of all the issues relating to the Internet, none is more hotly contested than privacy. There's a need to strike a balance among the interests of government, law enforcement, businesses, and individuals. That's going to take awhile. In the meantime, here are some questions and answers to help you master the technology that's launched the communications revolution of the '90s:

Do employers have the right to read your e-mail?
Yes. In recent cases, courts have ruled in favor of an employer's right to read any e-mail that passes through a company-owned system. Some employers obtain consent or give advance notice. Even without consent or notice, employer monitoring is permitted for legitimate business purposes. Twenty-five percent of companies Macworld magazine surveyed read employee e-mail.
     Not only can employers read your e-mail, but new software allows them to search for offensive words or phrases. So if you think your boss would never "eavesdrop" on one of your messages, think again.
     Check with your company to see if it's adopted an official e-mail policy. If it has a policy, read it. If the company doesn't have a policy, the Electronic Messaging Association in Rosslyn, Va., (703) 524-5550, offers a kit to help employers formulate an e-mail privacy policy.

What mechanically happens when someone sends e-mail?
Let's say David wants to send a message to his friend, Mary. David composes the e-mail and hits "send." The message flows through the Internet system, passing through several computers that help route the message in the general direction of Mary's machine.
     Every time the message passes through another computer, it can be read. You have no control over who reads your e-mail in transit. True, given the sheer volume of messages it's unlikely some system administrator or clever hacker is just waiting for your message to come by. But it's not impossible. Your exposure may depend on the ethics of business competitors or political opponents.
     E-mail users need to be aware that deleting a message from your computer doesn't mean it's gone. Your message lives on in cyberspace storage until the service provider discards it.

What do you need to consider when writing an e-mail message?
At home and in the office, it's important to compose messages in a way that avoids misunderstandings or hard feelings. Remember, you can't see a smile in cyberspace. DON'T SHOUT YOUR MESSAGE by typing in caps. Avoid e-mail in situations where conversation is more appropriate. Never use e-mail to criticize a colleague or to discuss bad news or personnel issues. Don't use e-mail for personal business unless you have permission.
     E-mail is fast, efficient, and easy--so much so that e-mail overload is becoming a problem for many employees. To reduce digital clutter, some corporations have enacted "e-mail free" time zones so employees can get some work done. Be selective about the list of individuals you copy on messages.

How can I find someone's e-mail address?
Experts agree that the easiest way of obtaining someone's e-mail address is to ask them for it. Log it immediately in your on-line address book so you'll have it for future reference.
     If you refuse to revert to low-tech solutions, a few Web sites may be helpful. Four11 (
www.four11.com) has more than eight million listings, including government officials. Another place to look is www.whowhere.com. Service providers like America Online maintain their own directories.
     You also can send e-mail from certain Web sites. For example, you can contact your members of Congress from www.house.gov or www.senate.gov.

Can I protect the privacy of my messages at home or at work?
At home, you may want to set up different screen names to protect the privacy of family members. For example, America Online allows five screen names on any given account. Each has its own password and mailbox.
     The most popular software to protect e-mail privacy is PGP, which stands for Pretty Good Privacy. With PGP, only the person intended to receive a message can read it. PGP is based on a powerful new technology called "public key" cryptography. It works like this: The software creates two keys, a public key and a private key. To decrypt (unscramble) the message, the recipient must possess the private key. In addition, there is a pass phrase.
     PGP only works when both the sender and the recipient have the technology. To learn more about PGP availability and pricing, visit the Web site at www.pgp.com.

What happens to your name when you register at a site?
It depends on the site. Some simply compile the information. Others use registration as a way to penetrate the on-line force field that protects you from junk mail, called spam on the Internet. Once you register with a site, you're fair game.
     On-line advertisers increasingly are turning to gimmicks like contests and on-line game shows to attract new customers. These "Trojan horses" appear to be highly effective. More than 25% of the players in a recent on-line contest a deodorant manufacturer sponsored went out and bought the product. The company attributes its success to the fact that each player received 24 direct e-mail pieces during the course of the game.
     Beware of "free" e-mail services. They won't charge you, but still exact a price: They pass your name along to advertisers.

Are there state or federal laws that protect e-mail users?
Existing state and federal electronic surveillance laws govern e-mail confidentiality. In 1986, Congress expanded the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA) to include electronic communication. The act makes it illegal for people to intercept phone calls and e-mail without a court order, but there are several exceptions and that's where problems arise.
     Lawmakers are jumping on the privacy bandwagon. Some have introduced legislation to restrict on-line data collection and encourage development of privacy-protection regulations. In addition, privacy advocates are urging Congress to pass legislation to loosen the government's control of encryption technology. They believe the legislation will lead to the development of better encryption products to give consumers more protection on the Internet.

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