Government Email For Private Use: “We have no secrets”
I’m dating myself here, but in 1972, Carly Simon released a song entitled, “We have no secrets.” The song and the album were very successful and the lyrics were quite timely. “We have no secrets. We tell each other everything.” Later in the song Ms. Simon sings the very powerful and wise line, “Sometimes I wish, often I wish that I never knew some of those secrets of yours.” While we all agree that email is an amazing way to communicate, many think that email is private like a letter placed into an envelope. Nothing could be further from the truth. This is especially true with email provided to you through a government entity.
Here is the scenario that I see most often. A LEO has an email address provided by her employer. She uses the email address often at work and becomes familiar with it. She gives this address out to friends and family members as freely as she does with co-workers and other LEOs. Eventually, she begins using the government email address in association with Facebook, Twitter, a personal blog or as contact information for a private group such as the Fraternal Order of Police. Eventually, this email address is used constantly for non-LE business. One day, the agency confronts the LEO with an email she sent to a friend. Her chain of command reminds her of the agency’s policy regarding private use of government resources and making disparaging remarks that undermine the effectiveness of the agency. Suddenly, a complaint is born, a LEO is facing discipline and a rush of fear comes over the LEO with an aching thought, “Can they look at all of the email I sent?” Short answer: Yes.
Email is hosted or maintained by the entity that owns the domain name. This is the part of the email after the “@” symbol. With very few exceptions, you should expect that you have no expectation of privacy in any email you send or receive through your agency email. That’s right. No subpoena necessary. You can also bet that the attorney suing you or your department will want any email relevant to the case and he will get it.
However, privacy is not your only concern. Many agency policies consider personal use of email the same as using any other government resource for personal use. Would you take your patrol car on a family trip to Wally World? Would you think it is acceptable use stamps and envelopes from your agency to send out payments to your cable and power company? If the answer if “no” then your understand why you should not use your agency email for private purposes.
Have you heard enough yet? Well, there’s more. While you may be able to control the emails you send, you have no control over the email sent to you! Imagine the sheer joy of explaining to your chain of command how your friend from high school through it was cool to send you an email with a nude photo attached. That would truly be a memorable experience. In truth, you have no control over the email people send to you. Including attachments that contain destructive viruses.
Finally, any correspondence with your attorney is protected by privilege. This privilege can be placed in jeopardy if you correspond through your agency email. I routinely call people who send me legal questions over their agency email and tell them to provide a private email address.
Fortunately, there are a number of simple and cheap solutions. You can get a gmail account here, a Yahoo account here, or get an email account from your cable company. Many organizations will allow you to get an email account through them. For example, any FOP member can get an email account with “fop.net” as a domain name. My FOP email is email@example.com. You can get an FOP email address here. If you are not a member, you can take care of that as well!
So, no more excuses! Get a personal email and use it for personal matters. Whether you are a” technogeek” or a dinosaur, you cannot wait any longer to take care of this. After all, Carly Simon was right about one thing. There are few secrets any more especially in our age of technology. Preserve the privacy you have.