Pity Amy Pascal, co-chairman of Sony Pictures Entertainment. An anonymous group calling itself Guardians of Peace exposed her thousands of emails to the world.
Ms. Pascal is a member of a large club of senior executives, many of whom are anonymous. Perhaps due to embarrassment, they have not stepped forward to admit to a demonstrable and dangerous truth: email is not secure.
Email is like mailing a postcard -- anyone with physical access to it along the way can read it.
Many older people cannot understand why younger people use social networks to publish so much personal information for so many to easily access permanently.
At the same time, however, older people regularly transmit confidential information by email. Astonishingly, even lawyers, accountants, political leaders and financial professionals transmit highly confidential information by email.
Just like a postcard, an email passes through a lot of different people's easy access. However, far less secure than a postcard, an email can live and be searchable forever. At least a postcard can be easily discarded or permanently destroyed after being read.
Very few people understand how email works. Most people think that email works similar to accessing a website. A website's information goes nonstop directly from the website's computer to your computer's screen. Websites work this way; email does not.
The average email is fully stored and searchable on an average of about six computers, sometimes many more: your own computer, your company's email computer (more commonly referred to as a "server"), your company's Internet service provider's computer, the email destination user's Internet service provider's computer, the email destination user's company's computer, and the destination user's computer.
Your or the recipient's employer generally need no permission to access your email. Government authorities can obtain legal authorization to access your email from any of these computers.
Others have actual access without legal access, including the just out-of-college wizards running the IT departments that handle many of these computers. Others who can physically access data transmission, but not the email stored on the email computers, can deploy readily available and simple-to-install email sniffers. A Google search on "email sniffers" reveals a staggering 8.4 million hits.
A person in the IT department at a company is able to know more about what is going on at the company than the CEO. The penalty for snooping on a colleague's emails, if detected, is generally no stricter than dismissal. Companies want to maintain their reputation, and therefore rarely would involve the police. The full extent of email snooping is hard to know. Amy Pascal is not alone.
Then there are outside hackers, unauthorized people who want to access your personal email or your company's email. The hacker's motivation may include financial gain, industrial espionage, government intelligence, personal animosity or simply the challenge.
All the information found on almost all computers is fully accessible via passwords. Just like you are probably lazy with your passwords, others are too. Common passwords, easily found by a hacker's computer trying millions of passwords in a short time, are used. People use the same password for different computers and websites. People write a password down and leave it easily accessible, perhaps even on a sticky note attached to a computer screen.
People will reveal their password to colleagues -- or to those purporting to be colleagues, often by telephone. There are still scams initiated overseas by crooks pretending to be from the IT department who "need" your password to "fix a virus." To make matters worse, hackers can use an email sniffer which copies email while the email is in transit between computers.
Computer storage used to be scarce, and, therefore, email was only kept for a relatively short time before being discarded and overwritten by new email. However, now, storage is so cheap and abundant that many companies keep all emails for years, perhaps forever. Even the storage on your own computer may be so large that even if you purposely "delete" all your "send and received" emails, they may not be fully overwritten, and thus no longer be recoverable, for years. Deleting an email or a file does not generally remove the document -- it is more like whiting out a chapter name in a book's table of contents, the chapter just no longer seems to be there, but it still is.
That your emails reside on so many computers is not the only reason for concern. It is that they reside and can remain there for years. Most companies back up their email computers regularly. Often those backups are maintained for years. If they are not destroyed, they live on forever.
Anyone who gains access to a vast store of emails can easily Google them to find the emails of most interest to them.
The next time that you think how foolish younger people may be sharing all that private information on social networks, remember that the 'confidential' email that you sent earlier in the day is far less confidential than mailing a postcard.
This article was co-authored with Bob Seeman, Chair of The RIWI Corporation, a global Internet data collection company used to forecast global risk, Chairman of the Advisory Board of EOPN, and an engineer and former Head of Strategy for Microsoft Network, UK.
If you have a color laser printer, then the documents you print may have imperceptible yellow tracking dots that reveal the printer's serial number and the date and time of printing. The dots are used as part of an effort to track counterfeiters, but the Electronic Frontier Foundation reports that there's nothing stopping the government from tracking any document you print, whether or not its related to currency.
According to the book Brandwashed by Martin Lindstrom, coupon providers often encode your personal information in the bar codes of digital coupons you print. The information can include your computer's IP address, when you found the coupon, where you redeemed it, and the search terms you used to find it.
According to a chart compiled by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, ebook companies often retain your book searches, book purchases and even information on how you're reading the book.
In an interview with Charles Duhigg about his article in The New York Times called "What Does Your Credit-Card Company Know About You?" the reporter said that many credit card companies now have "massive laboratories where they can track what you buy with your card and sort of deduce a lot of things about you, based on those patterns."
Next time you shop at Target, you might want to leave that discount card at home. Many retailers' discount and loyalty cards cards collect purchasing data on customers who use them. The data isn't just used to inundate you with coupons, it may also be used against you by insurance companies.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation warns that many new "smart" electricity meters let utility companies track your power usage "moment by moment." That means your utility company could potentially learn what time you wake up, when you go on vacation, or even more minute details -- like when you run the dishwasher or take a hot bath.
Companies like Verizon and Microsoft have sought to patent processes for monitoring TV watchers. There has also been speculation that Microsoft's soon-to-be-released Xbox One will spy on you via the Kinect, a motion-sensing camera. But that doesn't mean your TV watching habits haven't already been monitored. The Wall Street Journal in 2011 reported that cable companies target ads using TV watchers' personal data.
Follow Neil Seeman on Twitter: www.twitter.com/RIWIdata