Email and its perils

Email is fast and convenient. It is also risky. Here are three common sources of incidents with email. They are not new, but they keep biting even the most experienced email users.

1. Risks of using Bcc

Alice writes to Bob. She wants Carol to know what she wrote, but she does not want Bob to know that she is keeping Carol informed. So she copies Carol in the form of a “Blind carbon copy” (Bcc). The Bcc mechanism is meant exactly for such situations: while Bcc recipients see the list of other recipients (To and Cc), these other recipients see no mention of Bcc recipients.

Now Carol sees the messages and responds to Alice. But to respond she uses, perhaps inadvertently, “Reply all”. The reply goes to both Alice and Bob. All of Alice’s efforts to keep mum about Carol’s involvement are lost!

The risk in this situation is that Alice has no way to control what Carol may do. At issue here is not a conscious effort by Carol to break confidentiality: in that case Alice could do nothing anyway as soon as she has sent Carol the information. The worrying possibility is that Carol may use “Reply all” by mistake.

Rule 1 (temporary): never use Bcc. Alice should send the message to Bob only, and forward a copy separately to Carol alone.

I start with this form of the rule because it is easy to remember and usually appropriate, but in one case it is too strong. Remove Bob from the picture. Then if Carol is a  person, it is pointless for Alice to use Bcc for her, rather than To (or Cc), since Carol knows everything there is to know. But now assume that Carol is actually the name of a mailing list. Members of the mailing list should know the originator, Alice, but they should not know about each other, or even about the name of the list. If these are the constraints, there is no risk in using Bcc. Hence the revised version of the rule:

Rule 1 (final): never use Bcc except for all recipients of a message.

Indeed what was wrong in the first example was not the use of Bcc as such, but the mix with To (or Cc). Bcc must be used only for either all the recipients of a message or none of them.

2. Risks of not using Bcc

Very recent case (today, actually) from the refereeing process of a prestigious computer science conference. The program chair sends to all authors of submitted papers,  say <>, a general message about the refereeing process. But he uses that address in the “To” or “Cc” field, not “bcc”.

One author, say Alice, has a question about the process and responds to the message, inadvertently using “Reply all”. Then:

  • Everyone knows that Alice has submitted a paper.
  • Many of the other authors are away and have “automatic reply” set up. So Alice herself now knows the names of quite a few other members of the community who have submitted papers!” is the most important conference in its field, and essentially every researcher in that community submits at least one paper every year. Knowing who has submitted is confidential information. That information becomes interesting a few months later, when the conference program is published and you find out that Bob tried and was not accepted. All the more juicy information, of course, if Bob is a senior (and arrogant) researcher.

Rule 2: when a mailing list includes people who should not know who else is on the list, either set up the list so that only the administrators can post to it, or use Bcc (respecting Rule 1, in its final form).

3. The importance of not being Allison

Another common risk, which strikes all the time, is automatic address completion by email clients (Outlook, Thunderbird etc.). You type part of the name or address of a frequent correspondent, and the system completes the email address.  So convenient! Except when the completion is wrong and you do not check it.

I frequently receive email that was misaddressed because of unchecked completion. (The latest case was last week.) Here is an example of completion that was expected but did not happen. A few years ago, in an institution of which I was then a member, a high-level executive wanted to send to her secretary the results of a job candidate’s evaluation. Highly confidential stuff. The secretary was called Allison and had an address of the form <>. The executive was used to typing just all and relying on address completion. Somehow, that particular time the completion did not occur; perhaps she was not using her familiar email setup. As a result the message went to <>, that is to say, everyone in the organization. The recipients were, of course, delighted to get the inside story on the candidate.

Rule 3:

  • Always check the recipient addresses visually and carefully.
  • Never hire a secretary called Allen, Allison or Allistair.
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One Comment

  1. I updated Rule 1 to account for a special but legitimate use of Bcc.

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