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Does Bill still use email?

by Scott Bradner

If I were Bill Gates I'd sure be leery of one aspect of modern technology, and if I were the president or a major officer in just about any major corporation I'd also be leery. Watching the low resolution video of Bill Gates being asked about email he sent or received in years past is bound to make anyone try and remember what damaging or misleading mail they have sent in the past and to resolve to take care in the future.

During the discovery process of the government's anti-trust suit against Microsoft vast numbers of Microsoft documents were subpoenaed , including reams of copies of old email messages. A few of these messages have been used to challenge Microsoft statements in some areas. But even in this trial, Microsoft has not been the only one challenged by their old mail. The appointment of Professor Larry Lessig of Harvard as an independent expert was successfully challenged by Microsoft based in part on a joking email message he once sent to a friend.

While the risks of one's email messages to friends or business associates coming back to haunt you years later are worrisome enough one of the features of today's Internet is a combination of a seemingly limitless memory and a surprisingly efficient retrieval system. Just about everything that you send to any electronic mailing list or news group, just about anything that someone says about you electronically, and any web pages that might include references to you are all saved someplace. That is bad enough but what makes this worse is that someone who is looking for information about you can find many of these references in a few seconds using one of a number of search engines. Even though as a writer and someone involved in the standards world I'm somewhat in the public eye it is a bit daunting to find over 1600 hits on my full name in AltaVista. ( I can take some comfort in the fact that while this is more than I'd like it pales beside the 111752 hits that come up for Bill Gates.)

Even worse is the fact that this stuff seems to stay around forever. Long after your indiscrete posting to the alt.barney.kill.kill newsgroup has expired in the local news servers it will linger in some archive. In somewhat of a democratization brought about by the net all Internet participants from corporate CEOs to high school kids are equally subject to having potentially embarrassing tidbits from the past pop up at inopportune moments. Like when you find out that the personnel officer at the company you are applying to does a web search on every job applicant.

This certainly is a privacy issue but it can be much more as demonstrated by the Microsoft case. It is a hard process indeed to continually weigh the balance between the convenience and efficiency of email against the possibility of what you are saying being used against you and your company in the future.

disclaimer: If I were Bill Gates I would have an endowment 5 times that of Harvard but the above is my opinion, not Bill's or Harvard's.