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A recent Time article comments:
"It's a situation that arises a million times a day in offices around the world. An employee has something personal to tell a co-worker-- a confidence, a joke, a bit of gossip that might give offense if it were overheard. Rather than pick up the phone or wander down the hall, he or she simply types a message on a desktop computer terminal and sends it as electronic mail. The assumption is that anything sent by E-mail is private-- if not more so-- than a call or a face-to-face meeting. That assumption, unfortunately, is wrong."
Organizations have moved quickly to adopt electronic mail and take advantage of its many benefits. E-mail can be used to enhance a company's effectiveness by facilitating the flow of communication between employees at all levels. It also promotes the efficiency of communications, reduces "telephone tag," and it may lead to cost savings from reduced paper and postage usage. Not surprisingly, a study in the May 25, 1992 issue of Networld found that the penetration rate of e-mail in Fortune 500 companies rose from 67% in 1990 to 98% just a year later. According to the Electronic Mail Association's Research and Statistics Committee, the number of e-mail users in Fortune 2000 firms is projected to grow from 8.9 million in 1992 to 15.6 million in 1993. E-mail is becoming as commonplace as the telephone in many organizations. Yet, in the "rush" to expand e-mail, many companies have not given sufficient attention to developing and communicating e-mail usage policies.
As a result, one issue that has emerged in importance, and which has even led to lawsuits against employers, is electronic mail privacy. Marc Rotenberg, Director of Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility, stated in the Wall Street Journal: "This is a big issue, and it's going to become bigger as organizations become increasingly dependent on electronic communications." Similarly, Time points out, "the question of how private E-mail should be has emerged as one of the stickiest legal issues of the electronic age." The purpose of this article is to clarify the issue of e-mail privacy and to offer recommendations to employers in dealing with this challenge.
Company Approaches to E-Mail Privacy
Currently, the only federal statute that addresses the issue of e-mail privacy is the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA) of 1986. This act prohibits the interception of e-mail messages by parties outside of a company except where there exists proper legal authorization (such as in the case of a search warrant obtained by law enforcement officials). Importantly, the ECPA does not cover the interception of messages by parties within a company. In this "legal vacuum," firms have taken a number of different approaches to address the issue of e-mail privacy.