The dangerous myth of email privacy: a lesson from scientists who were spied on by the FDA

A major scandal has erupted further regarding FDA monitoring of its scientists’ emails as reported by the NY Times.

The FDA spied on the emails of its own scientists and other scientists. Some of the emails also involved correspondence with Congress and even the White House.

FDA logo
FDA logo

Regardless of one’s position on what the FDA did, the hullaballoo highlights the danger of one of the most common myths in the world: that emails are private.

Emails are not private, not just at the FDA

No matter what anyone says, thinks or hopes, email is not a private form of communication.

I for one imagine my emails as quite boring or even soporific in general, but that doesn’t mean I want any old bozo reading them.

Scientists think that email is private though, when without almost any exceptions it isn’t.

Assuming most scientists are employed, essentially all are subject to email monitoring by their employers where the employer is a government agency or private company.

This goes well-beyond scientists, of course, to anyone emailing while at work.

I know many people who send private emails while at work, but for that purpose they use a Gmail or Yahoo account…however those are not necessarily more private for a variety of reasons. For example, Yahoo reportedly just had almost 1/2 million email user passwords stolen a few days ago. Google has a mixed track record of privacy and just agreed to pay a greater than $20 million USD fine for privacy violations.

The bottom line is that anything you send via email, regardless of where you send it or via which account, may not be private. Of course certain pathways such as emailing at work decrease privacy dramatically, but it is wisest to use extra caution whenever emailing. This is not paranoia, but rather simple common sense.

3 thoughts on “The dangerous myth of email privacy: a lesson from scientists who were spied on by the FDA”

  1. This post is a very good reminder about the issue covered. One of the consequences of the lack of privacy in email is the obscuring of the information’s meaning that results from unauthorized use and dissemination. When emails or data are obtained covertly without context, the unauthorized intrusion together with the reduced accuracy of information retrieved (because it was taken out of context or misinterpreted), create some serious complications in using the data.

  2. Great post Paul. If your email is violated beyond a written work agreement like via your own account after leaving a workplace or by a workmate/colleague or ex. It is a felony the same as mail fraud and people when prosecuted can face jail as the offense can be tracked right to the offending computer and user. It can also be pursued civilly but unless someone has money and a lot of time to burn it is just not worth it. Better to just keep it as if the whole world will end up reading it.

    It is a real issue for those of us treating vulnerable persons as they often do not have the discretion needed to consider this. It is also good to put it out there that Facebook and other networking sites are not private either and have been used to gather intelligence for not so upright reasons

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