Email, phone hacking and your company

By: Monica Seeley

Date: 5 September 2011

One of this year’s biggest news stories has been the phone hacking scandal. One of the first celebrities to settle with the now-defunct News of the World was Sienna Miller, and I’ve always believed the newspaper was keen to settle because she demanded to see all emails relating to herself.

However, it was only a matter of time before others affected by the scandal demanded to see such emails too. And as result, it recently emerged that HCL Technologies – a firm that managed some of the News of the World’s IT systems – was asked to delete emails nine times between April 2010 and July 2011. 

Lessons you can learn

Although I totally condemn the phone hacking saga, there are lessons to be learnt about how we use email. Indeed, the use of emails as evidence highlights three issues:

  • Emails can’t ever really be destroyed. Under current UK law, you’re allowed to destroy emails. But in practice, you can bet that someone, somewhere will have a copy printed off or saved to a file. Once you’ve sent an email, there’s no way of knowing who it’s been forwarded on to or where it’s been stored.

  • You need to be vigilant about what you say in emails. Careless messages sent in haste can be costly. For instance, if you reply ‘yes’ when a client sends an email telling you that you’ve made a mistake, you leave yourself little room to negotiate. Sending anything that could be seen as defamatory could also be costly.

  • Email is as open as a postcard. You can bet your life that someone who shouldn’t have has seen those News of the World emails. Maybe some were forwarded on, found on a printer or simply read on screen over the recipient’s shoulder. There’s nothing inherently secure about email.

Will email law change?

You may also have heard that there has been talk of changing the UK laws relating to the retention and archiving of emails. In future, businesses could be compelled to keep all their emails and make them available on demand. That brings its own set of problems.

Ultimately, these things all confirm that you really need to think before you hit send. If you’re in any doubt about the content of your email, talk first and email afterwards.

Protecting your business

As well as thinking carefully about when and how you send emails, there are other things you can do to protect your business:

  • Make sure you have an up-to-date, effective email acceptable usage policy. This helps reduce the chance of a breach of security occurring.
  • Create an email best practice charter and offer your staff training in email use. Email seems so straightforward that many companies neglect training – yet it can make your employees more efficient and reduce the security risks.

There’s a tool to help you create an acceptable usage policy, plus a template for an email charter over on my own website.

(I’m not, of course, condoning any kind of hacking, whether into someone’s email, voicemail or anything else. I just think this scandal has highlighted some interesting issues about how businesses use and manage their email.)

To learn more about using email more effectively either go to one of Dr Monica Seeley’s new ninety minute Brilliant Email Master Classes or get a copy of her book, ‘Brilliant Email: How to improve productivity and save time’.