The Net has ears

It's has been demonstrated yet again in the case of the tobacco companies, what you write down can come back to haunt you.

Hundreds of thousands of documents have been surrendered by the tobacco companies and are being scrutinised by these companies' challengers. This is the sort of case where writing down the wrong thing may wind up costing a few billion dollars.

In the tobacco case, the documents were meant to be internal communications, but the same set of problems can easily come about if an employee is careless in a letter to a customer.

Many firms now require that all paper mail sent to customers be preapproved, so the sending company can be sure there are no misrepresentations of facts or any misleading wording. Some companies have even created a catalogue of pre-approved letters to be used when communicating with customers.

And now in addition to paper mail, companies are faced with the implications of e-mail correspondence.

At first glance it would seem as if these companies could treat e-mail just like any other correspondence and use the same processes that were set up for paper-based mail. But the dynamics of e-mail exchanges are much different than those of paper-based exchanges.

People have a tendency to respond quickly to questions posed via e-mail. Requiring e-mail users to forward their replies through a person acting as a veracity checker is at best clumsy and time-consuming. The New York Times reports that at least one firm is looking into software that would scan all outgoing mail for legally dangerous phrases, such as "my mother'', as in "this security is so safe that my mother has invested in it''.

The ease with which e-mail can be forged presents other problems. In the long run, this can be dealt with by requiring that all employees who send e-mail to customers use an e-mail package that automatically appends a digital signature to every message. But it will be a while before secure e-mail packages are widely deployed.

In the meantime, organisations may have to resort to saving a copy of all outbound e-mail to prove that a particular message was modified after transmission or that a particular message was never sent. Then again, proving that a message was never sent might be hard to do in court, so saving copies may not be sufficient.

There are also very real privacy issues with any procedure that involves storing all correspondence, including letters between lovers. In addition, keeping copies of e-mail does not address employees sending messages from non-company accounts, such as private accounts with an Internet service provider or America Online.

Training employees to be very careful in their e-mail exchanges and to assume they are writing for posterity -- and a future claimant's lawyers -- is just one of the many challenges that accompany this digital age.

Disclaimer: Let it be known that these words are not the official or unofficial pronouncements of Harvard University. (Is that clear enough?) (Bradner is a consultant with Harvard University's University Information Systems. He can be reached at sob@harvard.edu.)

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