What is Email Privacy?

Mary Elizabeth
Mary Elizabeth

Mailing a letter through what is now referred to as “snail mail” is a chain of events in which the letter generally stays sealed until it is opened by the person you addressed it to. Thus one’s communication is afforded a certain amount of privacy by the process. When one sends an email, the process is quite different, and hence there are valid concerns about email privacy.

Email messages are not entirely private.
Email messages are not entirely private.

Email privacy is one element of Internet privacy. On the whole, using the Internet means that you will have to surrender a certain amount of privacy. One’s email may be more or less private, however, depending on how it is set up.

Emails may become less private the longer they sit in a person's inbox.
Emails may become less private the longer they sit in a person's inbox.

In part, the privacy of the email is determined by the email provider. If one works at a company with an intranet and is sending email within the company, the communication is quite safe, because the email is only duplicated within the company’s own servers. But if one was sending a personal email or one to a recipient outside the company, this would not be a good choice. So, if this service is not available or appropriate in a certain case, a third-party email client will need to be chosen.

As with any other Internet service, one should read the terms of service for one’s choice of email client. This is also true of one’s Internet service provider. A person who is seeking privacy should look for the terms that provide the greatest amount of protection, while still allowing the company that is being contracted with to perform its job, knowing that no matter how good the terms are, the email will still be located on a number of servers by the time it reaches the recipient.

Email sent using the POP3 protocol, which is standard, does not encode the username and password used to access the account. Email clients can be set up to use a Secure Socket Layer (SSL) connection for email. If this is done, then the data is encrypted, making email accounts safer.

The privacy of email can still be diminished in other ways. For example, a recipient of an email can forward it to others, with or without the sender’s knowledge. A person can also not only carbon copy (CC) an email, but also blind copy (BCC) it, in the second case, sharing its contents without others being aware of the fact. Email correspondence can also be printed out and shared in that format without others involved in the correspondence knowing that this has been done.

Email privacy has also been violated inadvertently. This can happen when, in attempting to respond to only a single person on a group email, the recipient clicks on “reply all” rather than just “reply,” unwittingly sending the email intended for one person to a number of others. Another accidental violation of email privacy can occur due to the self-completing feature in many email programs. A number of email users have begun to type an addressee’s name and allowed the email client to complete it, not realizing that the person was not the addressee intended. Thus the contents of the email are shared with someone other than the planned recipient.

Many people have growing concerns about privacy issues related to email and the Internet.
Many people have growing concerns about privacy issues related to email and the Internet.
Mary Elizabeth
Mary Elizabeth

Mary Elizabeth is passionate about reading, writing, and research, and has a penchant for correcting misinformation on the Internet. In addition to contributing articles to wiseGEEK about art, literature, and music, Mary Elizabeth is a teacher, composer, and author. She has a B.A. from the University of Chicago’s writing program and an M.A. from the University of Vermont, and she has written books, study guides, and teacher materials on language and literature, as well as music composition content for Sibelius Software.

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Discussion Comments


Most of my emails are so boring that even the people I send them to don't want to read them, so I don't need email privacy. I'm not worried about anyone going out of his way to read my emails. I don't put any vital information that could be used for identity theft or any information that might put by bank accounts at risk in my email messages.

However, I know that there is no such thing as total privacy no matter how you communicate, or no matter what you do in your personal life. Like they say, big brother is watching.


@Animandel - I agree with you that it is scary how easily an email you send can be passed on to the wrong person. Who hasn't mistakenly clicked on "reply all" when you meant to simply click on "reply"? And unlike you, some of the messages I have sent would definitely be seen as vulgar by some people.

I would say that email providers need to do more to protect our email privacy, but nobody is forcing us to use email. If you don't want to risk your messages being seen by someone they were not intended for then stop sending them. You can go back to using snail mail or talking on the telephone.


I thought all email was encrypted email. After reading this, I am now more concerned about using email for communicating with friends and family. I don't send anything illegal or vulgar in email messages, but there are plenty of my messages that I wouldn't want to be seen by the wrong person.

Even as I write this, I know I am not going to change the way I use email. I have just become so addicted to this way of communicating that I would have a tough time changing my habits even if I wanted to.

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