Are email and IM's private?

Dennis Faas's picture

Infopackets Reader "Artsiii" writes:

" Dennis, thanks very much for your informative newsletter. Someone told me that every email and Instant Message [IM] I've ever sent has been saved by my Internet Service Provider [ISP] or email program.

Surely this can't be true? There must be millions of messages sent every day. Isn't this information private? I know I would not like what I have said at one time or another available to anyone. Explain please. Thanks for your help. "

My response:

Interesting questions. Let me try and break it down.

RE: Is information that travels across the Internet private?

The short and sweet answer is "no" -- not unless the information has been encrypted (I.E: secured). And, for the record, email and [most] Instant Messengers do not use a secure method of communication.

Why? If you recall, information that travels across the Internet is split up into smaller-sized packets using TCP / IP. These packets hop along the 'net by bouncing from server to server until they hit their destination, where the packets are put back together to form a file / email or instant message. Not all packets take the same route to reach their destination, and not all servers that the packets bounce from are guaranteed to be secure.

Side note: TCP / IP is a protocol. A protocol is simply a method of communication.

RE: Does my ISP record my chat and Instant Messaging?

Most likely -- in the form of a log (in case of abuse). To understand exactly what your ISP is recording, you would have to read their Terms of Service agreement [TOS].

RE: Does my email / Instant Message program record my communication?

That all depends on the features of the program. For example: I use Outlook Express to send and receive my emails. I happen to know that each message I send gets copied to my 'Sent Items' folder. I also happen to know that this feature can be disabled using Tools -> Options -> Send -> Save copy of Sent Messages in 'Sent Items' folder.

Side note: If you are a paranoid PC user and would like to maintain a consistent level of privacy, read this past issue of the Gazette.

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