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Email Confidentiality Footers

August 23, 2011

Michael Bugeja, director,
Greenlee School of Journalism and Communication,
Iowa State University of Science and Technology

It goes without saying that administrators should take care when sending or forwarding email messages, ensuring that the right party receives the appropriate message.

Mistakes happen, and we all have heard tales about them.

You can even find Internet sites dedicated to embarrassing messages sent to the wrong party, as in this example: “A person called another employee an idiot in an e-mail to everyone in the company.”

Some acts of idiocy speak for themselves. Others are accidental.

After all, chairs, directors and deans cope with hundreds of emails every day and do lots of confidential business. As if to ease their worries, several administrators at my university have appended “email confidentiality footers,” warning:

“This communication is for use by the intended recipient and contains information that may be privileged, confidential or copyrighted under applicable law. If you are not the intended recipient, you are hereby formally notified that any use, copying or distribution of this e-mail, in whole or in part, is strictly prohibited. Please notify the sender by return e-mail and delete this e-mail from your system.”

(There is even a website for this, featuring all the various footers being used in industry and academe.)

Today I have been dealing with a few emails with similar warnings. Some messages need to be forwarded to colleagues who are not “intended” recipients.

Email warnings are based on federal law reminding hackers and digital malfeasants that intercepting messages, by wiretap, say, is a crime. Warnings also imply that senders of messages could have emailed the wrong person. In that case, the sender is making a simple request that may or may not be heeded, i.e., being informed of the mistake with the recipient deleting the message.

Warnings do not accomplish much more than that, especially at a state-supported program, because email records are exempt from confidentiality under public records law.

Some correspondence, however, is truly confidential, or should remain so. If not, then each instance would have to be determined by appropriate law or standard. Examples might be student information or personnel records sent to a party without a specific need to know.

Rather than use a confidentiality footer, I include a personal motto in my ending signature file:

The absence of transparency
Implies the presence of incompetence

The motto is there to remind me rather than others how to conduct the public’s business.

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