With the convenience of sending emails from anywhere and at any time, many people seem to forget that an email can contain personal information that could be accessed by unwanted third parties.
So how do you keep yourself safe? From email encryption to avoiding sharing personal information (like your Social Security number) over email, there are a few ways you can safeguard your information.
But data protection goes beyond basic steps like that. You need to know the facts.
Here are some email privacy facts to keep in mind today for a safer tomorrow.
Is There a Right to Privacy in Emails?
Before we dive into these startling email privacy facts, let’s address the elephant in the room – does your email inbox even have a right to privacy to begin with?
Technically, once an email is stored on a computer (be it the email server or the user computer), it is protected from unauthorized access under the Stored Communications Act. No member of the public or government entity can intrude upon that.
With that being said, the number of email accounts being hacked on a daily basis continues to rise. From phishing scams by actual cybercriminals to – yes – government surveillance (they have loopholes!), your online privacy isn’t always guaranteed.
10 Shocking Email Privacy Facts to Be Aware Of
Cybersecurity is important for everyone, and not juts people who work in law enforcement or who work with other sensitive data.
No matter what type of information you’re sending back and forth with your email, it’s important to be aware of the top email privacy concerns.
Let’s take a closer look.
1. It is Incredibly Easy for Email to Be Hacked or Intercepted
Email remains one of the most unsecured means of online communication.
For one, email messages are sent in clear text format, meaning they are readable by anyone who has access to the network traffic.
To put it simply, your email is like a postcard. You wouldn’t send your bank account details on a postcard, would you? Unfortunately, many people do this every day without realizing that their email can be pulled out of an internet traffic stream and read by anyone.
Cybercriminals use a variety of tactics, from stealing a user’s login credentials, to exploiting vulnerabilities in email clients or servers, to intercepting emails while in transit.
Once a hacker gains access, they can read and delete emails, steal your personal and confidential information, and even impersonate you to deceive your contacts. It’s not as difficult for them to get in as you might think.
Government agencies and internet service providers also have access to your email. The majority of email services store all your emails on servers, which are owned and managed by email providers. This means that your emails are not only accessible to you but also to third parties.
Most email services claim that they do not read the content of your emails, but they cannot guarantee that your privacy is protected from government surveillance or data breaches (hence, the loophole mentioned earlier in this article).
It’s important to remember that email security is not just your problem. It is essential to realize that your email can pose a security risk to your contacts as well.
If your email account gets hacked, the hacker can use it to send spam or phishing emails to the people in your contacts list, compromising their security and safety.
2. Governments Around the World Engage in Email Surveillance – Including Those in the US
Let’s address another loophole – the Patriot Act.
The Patriot Act, a piece of legislation introduced in the US after the 9/11 attacks, gives the government the power to conduct surveillance on individuals without a warrant.
This means that agencies such as the National Security Agency (NSA) can monitor your emails, phone calls, and other forms of communication if they believe it is necessary for national security.
While this was initially intended to be used against terrorism, it has now been used to monitor US citizens for various reasons.
It’s not just the US government that engages in email surveillance. The UK and other countries also have laws that allow them to access individuals’ email and other forms of communication.
The UK’s Investigatory Powers Act, for example, allows the government to monitor people’s internet use and phone records – without their knowledge. This legislation has been criticized by privacy advocates and even some politicians, who argue that it goes against individuals’ rights to privacy.
Nevertheless, your sensitive information might not be as protected by your email service provider as you might think.
3. Emails Can Legally Be Used in Courtroom Proceedings and Can Be Subpoenaed by Courts
If you’re involved in a legal case – whether it’s a divorce, a business dispute, or a criminal trial – your emails could potentially be used as evidence.
This could include emails between you and the other party, as well as emails exchanged between you and other individuals who aren’t directly involved in the case.
It’s worth noting that emails are just one type of digital evidence that can be used in court – others include text messages, social media posts, and even metadata from your phone or computer.
Why is this considered permissible? They’re considered private communications between two or more individuals.
While you might assume that your emails are protected by some sort of legal privilege – like attorney-client privilege or doctor-patient confidentiality – the reality is that there’s no such thing as email-client privilege.
This means that if a lawyer or court wants to gain access to your emails, they can do so relatively easily, either through a subpoena or a court order.
4. About 90% of Cyberattacks Start with a Phishing Email
Phishing is an email-based attack designed to trick users into clicking on malicious links, downloading dangerous attachments, or giving away sensitive information.
These phishing attempts often impersonate a trusted source, such as a bank, an e-commerce or social media platform, a reputable brand, or a person you know.
They create a sense of urgency or an emotional response to create a sense of urgency that overrides the user’s natural skepticism.
Once the unsuspecting user takes the desired action, the attacker gains access to the user’s device, network, or personal data. Unfortunately, about 90% of all cyberattacks start with phishing.
The consequences of a successful phishing attack can be dire. The attacker can steal your financial credentials, hijack your online accounts, install malware or ransomware on your device, or even use your identity for fraud or other criminal activities.
Not only that, but phishing can lead to data breaches, which can have serious implications for individuals, organizations, or society as a whole. Some of the best-known data breaches, such as Equifax, Target, or Marriott, have been caused by phishing attacks.
5. The Metadata of an Email Can Be Just As Vulnerable as the Content of the Email
In simple terms, metadata is information that describes other data. In the case of email, it’s the information that surrounds the content of an email.
This includes the sender and recipient’s email addresses, date and time sent, subject line, and even the IP address of the device used to send the email. All this information is necessary for the email to be sent and delivered, but it can also reveal a lot about the email’s content.
For example, let’s say you receive an email from your doctor regarding a medical condition. The metadata of that email can reveal that you have a certain medical condition, the name of your doctor, and the date and time you received the email.
This information can be valuable to data mining companies, insurance companies, or anyone who has an interest in your health.
Another concern with email metadata is tracking. Email services like Gmail and Outlook use tracking pixels to monitor when an email has been opened. When you open an email, the tracking pixel sends a signal back to the server, letting the sender know that you’ve read the email.
This may seem innocent, but it has its risks. Spammers and phishers use tracking pixels to verify active email addresses, making you more vulnerable to future attacks.
6. If You Delete an Email, it Might Not Be Gone Forever
It’s easy to assume that once an email is deleted, it’s gone into the abyss of cyberspace. Unfortunately, that’s not the case.
When you hit delete, your email most likely goes to your email provider’s trash folder, where it sits for a designated amount of time before it’s permanently deleted.
However, there are times when your email provider might keep backups of your emails, even after they’re deleted. That means that potentially embarrassing or personal emails you thought were long gone may still be lurking on some server.
So, who has access to these backups? In theory, only authorized personnel, such as IT staff should have access to these backups.
However, there have been instances of hackers gaining access to email backups and using the information for malicious purposes. That’s why it’s important to keep this email privacy fact in mind and think twice before sending that sensitive email.
Another thing to keep in mind is that even if your email provider doesn’t keep backups, the recipient of your email might.
If you send an email to someone and they have their email account set to automatically archive all incoming messages, your seemingly deleted email might be living in their archives forever.
It might not pose a huge issue if it’s just a casual conversation between friends, but if it contains sensitive information, you might want to think about what you’re sending.
7. If You’re Using a Computer at Work, Your Email Can Be Monitored
How many of us use our work computers to check our personal email or carry out other personal tasks? Probably the vast majority. But it’s probably not a good idea.
Ultimately, your company has every right to monitor your email when you’re using a computer at work. It’s nothing personal; it’s just what happens when you use a company-owned machine.
While this can be quite unsettling, it’s important to note that employers often monitor email for legitimate reasons such as compliance, preventing harassment, company reputation, and security.
In most cases, emails are monitored using software or third-party services that allow the tracking and logging of emails sent and received.
This means that not only can your employer see the contents of the emails, but they can also track where the emails are being sent, including attachments. In some cases, emails may even be intercepted before they even reach their intended recipient.
8. Your Emails Are Being Used for Advertising Purposes
Email providers like Yahoo and Google have access to all the emails you send and receive through their service. This means they can analyze the content of your emails to learn more about you.
They can see what brands you like, what websites you shop on, and even what you’re talking about with your friends. This information is valuable to advertisers because they can use it to target ads to you more effectively.
However, it’s not just your emails themselves that are being used for advertising purposes. Many email providers will scan the subject lines of your emails and then use that information to target ads to you on their platform.
For example, if you receive an email from a clothing store with the subject line “50% off all dresses,” there’s a good chance you’ll start seeing ads for that store’s dresses on your email provider’s platform.
It’s not just email providers that are using your emails for advertising purposes, either. Many third-party apps and services require access to your email inbox to function properly. Once they have access, they can also scan your emails for data that can be used for targeted advertising.
Some apps and services even sell this data to advertisers, which means your personal information is being shared with companies you’ve never even heard of.
How to Keep Your Email Private
Email’s an integral part of our daily communication – there’s no arguing with that. Whether you’re using email for personal or professional purposes, we need email in order to stay productive.
However, with data breaches and cybercrime becoming increasingly more common, there are a few steps you need to take to keep your email safe.
1. Use Encryption
Encryption is a powerful tool for keeping your email private. It’s a process of converting your email message into an unreadable format that can only be deciphered by the intended recipient who has the decryption key.
There are several free and paid encryption tools available, such as GPG (GNU Privacy Guard) and ProtonMail.
2. Enable Two-Factor Authentication
Two-Factor Authentication (2FA) is a security feature that adds an extra layer of protection to your email account. With 2FA enabled, you have to enter a unique code that is sent to your mobile device or email address in addition to your password every time you log in.
This makes it harder for hackers to gain unauthorized access to your email account, even if they have your password.
3. Avoid Public Wi-Fi
Public Wi-Fi hotspots are a breeding ground for cybercriminals.
Hackers can easily intercept your online communications on public Wi-Fi networks and steal your sensitive information, including your email credentials. Avoid public Wi-Fi whenever possible.
4. Use a Strong Password
A strong password is crucial for keeping your email account private. Avoid using easily guessable passwords like “password” or “123456.” Instead, use a long password that contains a mix of uppercase and lowercase letters, numbers, and special characters.
5. Be Cautious of Phishing Scams
Phishing scams are one of the most common ways that hackers use to steal sensitive information through email. These scams involve sending you a legitimate-looking email that tricks you into clicking a link or downloading an attachment that contains malware.
To avoid falling victim to phishing scams, always be cautious of any unsolicited emails, especially those that ask you to provide personal or sensitive information.
To prevent identity theft and other types of cybercrime – and to ensure your data privacy when you’re online – follow the steps above.
At the end of the day, you can’t always predict crime before it happens, but by doing everything you can to keep your email communication safe, you can at least rest easy knowing you’ve done your part.