FBI Said To Read Over
20% Of All Email
By Claire Donnelly
Next time your finger is poised over the Send button, pause and think carefully about what's in that e-mail you're about to file.
Because you never know who might read it. Electronic mail is now a part of many people's everyday lives - it even features in a romantic Hollywood movie, You've Got Mail, starring Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan.
But few people realise that more than 20 per cent of all the billions of e-mails sent are scrutinised by FBI agents.
"Anything you send over the Internet is liable to be read," says Duncan Campbell, a surveillance officer for the European Parliament.
Warning users to be on their guard, he adds: "Intelligence-gathering agents in the US will follow messages which they think may be of interest to them.
Here in Britain, the Government is planning to issue warrants giving the police permission to rifle through your electronic mailbox.
It intends to launch a Bill to deter criminals from using the Net to share information and exploit other users. At present, paedophiles and other illegal groups use private codes - encryption - to hide illicit information when moving it across the Net.
When police seize their computers, unscrambling the evidence stored on them is a nightmare. So police want the power to crack coded messages using a digital key.
But although crime prevention is important, critics are worried about the danger to civil liberties.
They say the system is already wide open to abuse and allows people to tap into other people's mail unchecked. Technology writer Cliff Saran explains: "It's like giving someone a key to the door of your house - and you wouldn't do that.
"Basically, this just provides a way for government agencies to look at your e-mail and, from that, check out other areas of your life. It sets a very dangerous precedent.""
The police are not the only ones watching you. Your boss has his or her beady eye on your e-mail, too.
Last August, housing association workers Neil Edgar, 30, and Charlotte Wales, 22, were sacked from their office jobs in Edinburgh after a colleague who read their e-mail exchanges decided they were sexually graphic and reported them to management.
And London-based research centre clerk Mark Armstrong, 28, was asked to leave when a suspicious colleague tapped into his system and found insulting remarks about the other staff on his log-on.
Even more worrying is the launch of Desktop Surveillance, a computer programme to give management unlimited access to workers' private mail.
Cliff Saran says: "More and more big companies are reading the mail you send, and you can't tell that they are doing it. You wouldn't expect your boss to open your private letters, so why this?
"It's a very sinister culture, and bosses get up to all sorts of tricks - like setting their computer to send them any notes that mention their name. There are ways of 'locking' them so no one else can access them, but if your manager spots it's been coded that's just as bad.
"People will wonder what you're hiding and point the finger of suspicion at you."
Perhaps it is not surprising companies are paranoid, given the growing problem of industrial espionage via electronic means.
But, says Cliff: "There's always the danger of complete strangers getting hold of the information you put out and using it without you knowing."
Mirror computer writer Carol Vorderman shares his concerns. She urges users not to give away confidential information on the Web.
She says:""People must take care when sending e-mail via the Internet, especially with things such as credit card details.
"Already, a third of e-mails are digital junk mail, or 'spams'. Companies take your details when you log on or enter a chat room and then pass on up to 30 a day to your account.
"Even children's addresses are targeted - and as many spams advertise pornography, something has to be done.
"When the Web was first created, the people responsible wanted everything to be free and unsupervised. Now it's a huge community and needs policing like any other."