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Security


Email and Personally Identifiable information

In this digital age e-mail has become the primary method of distributing business and personal written communication. Even newer forms of communication such as social networking are supplementing and at times replacing e-mail. You know there has been a shift away from traditional postal mail when the U.S. Postal service is now having to advertise the benefits of it's service in hopes of re-gaining customers.

The Problem

E-mail is so convenient and easy. Information can be transmitted in milliseconds instead of days. But have you considered the risks to your confidentiality and privacy when sending e-mail? Many users believe that e-mail privacy is inherent and guaranteed, psychologically equating it with postal mail.

But isn't my e-mail communication protected under the Electronic Communications Privacy Act? http://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/18/2510-2522.html
Yes e-mail as electronic communication is protected under US law, but having a law does not guarantee that no one will break it. It is also extremely difficult to prosecute in an international context.

Most e-mails are transmitted in clear text and are not encrypted. This means that when your e-mail is crossing the globe on the internet, it is readable to anyone who can intercept it. You should have no expectation of confidentiality once you hit that send button.

Not only can most e-mails be read in clear text they can be modified in transit before it reaches its intended destination. You should have no expectation of message integrity once you hit that send button.

Most e-mail is not secure and there should be no expectation of confidentiality or integrity for your messages. A helpful way to think about sending e-mail is to equate it to sending a postcard through the postal mail. Anyone who happens to see your postcard from the time it is written can read your message. That is why when sending a postcard we say such things as "the surf is great in Hawaii, wish you were here!" We don't send messages such as, "here is my social security number ...." e-mail is like a postcard.

Personally Identifiable Information

Because e-mail is not secure, you should avoid sending or soliciting Personally Identifiable Information (PII).

What is PII?

"Any information about an individual..., including (1) any information that can be used to distinguish or trace an individual‘s identity, such as name, social security number, date and place of birth, mother‘s maiden name, or biometric records; and (2) any other information that is linked or linkable to an individual, such as medical, educational, financial, and employment information." -- NIST http://csrc.nist.gov/publications/nistpubs/800-122/sp800-122.pdf

Examples

  • Full name (if not common)
  • National identification number
  • Driver's license number
  • Face, fingerprints, or handwriting
  • Credit card numbers
  • Birthday
  • Birthplace
  • Genetic information
  • Education records
  • Health records

Tips

Never send Personally Identifiable Information (PII) over e-mail. Instead communicate this information over the phone, sealed postal mail, fax, or an encrypted method.

Never ask anyone to send confidential information to you over email.

If someone sends you PII information voluntarily over e-mail:

>> If you need to respond, create a new e-mail instead of replying so that you do not re-transmit the PII in the quoted message.

>> If you do reply, remove the PII information from the quoted text before sending.

>> Delete the email that contains the PII information and if needed have the e-mail re-sent without the confidential information.

Putting confidential information in a PDF attachment or other unencrypted format is not a secure practice and does not protect confidentiality.