Email confidentiality: the Multinational Banana War


“Some poor underpaid secretary back in the UK had, on finishing her lunch, found that she had some fruit spare. Rather than see it go to waste, she helpfully put it in the kitchen of the floor she was in, and sent an email to everyone on her floor: “Free bananas in the kitchen!!!”

Sadly, however, she sent it to the wrong list.

It didn’t just go to her floor.
It didn’t just go to her office.
It didn’t just go to the UK offices.

It went GLOBAL.”
What followed was one of the most expensive, ridiculous email catastrophes of the 21 century.

First, people replied with “out-of-office” messages and angry threats, clogging the airwaves, and of course, utilising the “Reply All” function. When the system collapsed and the UK IT guys struggled to sort it out, exactly the same thing happened in the US. Just as either side got their servers up again, someone would send a flood mails across the ocean, demanding removal from lists – taking everything down again. After three whole days, finally, finally, the crisis started to pass.

You can read the whole story here.

The great Multinational Banana War got me thinking about email confidentiality, and just how flippant we can be about electronic communications. Much of the information exchanged between corporations and individuals is private in nature – it consists of confidential thoughts, notes and data not intended for any causal user – and yet, it’s surprisingly easy to click the “reply-all” function within the blink of an eye.

When multiple users share the same computer, or a person selects an incorrect email recipient, there can be damaging legal ramifications to data landing in the wrong hands.

According to Paul Jacobson, Web and digital media lawyer at Jacobson Attorneys, the biggest challenge is making users aware of what personal information is being collected and what it is going to be used for.

“Companies also need to be aware of the need to publish comprehensive privacy policies and take informed consent from users to collect and process personal information,” he says.

When it comes to laws protecting users’ details, SA lags behind regions like Europe, says Jacobson. “We simply don’t have much legislation to guide us and most of our current privacy law is derived from case law and common law.”

In the US, for example, there were Net and wiretap laws enacted in the 1930s that extended some reasonable expectation of privacy to telephone conversations, although now, according to Lawrence A. Husick, intellectual property and technology law attorney at the firm Lipton, Weinberger & Husick, the law needs to be kept up to date in terms of non-voice and electronic communications.

You can read more about confidentiality statements on emails here.

I think the moral of the story, at least for me, is to never email someone in a flurry of mind, and to ensure you know what topics are suitable for email and what are perhaps better said face-to-face or over the phone.

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