- 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
- "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
- 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
- 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
- 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."