Pittsburgh Legal Back Talk

Legal topics of interest to lawyers and consumers with a Pittsburgh and Western Pennsylvania focus.

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Maintaining Personal Secrecy in an Age of Transparency.

Posted By Cliff Tuttle | December 27, 2010

No. 546

Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook, is the Time Magazine 2010 Person of the Year. From Time’s account, Julian Assange of Wikileaks was not far behind.  Both represent a trend toward disclosure of information which would have been considered out of bounds by just about everybody not long ago.

Of course, people who post on Facebook presumably know that information shared with friends could end up in the hands of enemies. And we have all been warned that what is posted on the internet stays there forever.  But you need to be aware that another electronic medium, one that you may think is private and secure, is even more dangerous than Facebook:  your business email account.

Do not mix personal and business email — especially if you are an employee and use email for business all day.  Yes, your boss can read your email and yes, the account can be hacked.  But even if neither event happens, you could find yourself in deep trouble if you do not police your email. Many small businesses do a large portion of their business by email these days.  That’s where its all happening.  So what happens when the company becomes involved in litigation?  Have you heard about electronic discovery?

So, pursuant to a discovery request, lawyers copy the whole hard drive of computers believed to contain information relevant to the case and start examining it.  And what do they find?

  • Resumes of employees complete with cover letters, sometimes addressed to competitors;
  • Emails between mom and children, sometimes discussing intimate personal problems;
  • Jokes being circulated to a large number of friends;
  • Pictures, some personal, a few very personal;
  • New Years Resolutions;
  • Shopping lists, requests for errands and the like sent to spouses;
  • Gossip and stories, some personal, a few very personal;
  • Comments about co-workers, clients and bosses, some derogatory, a few defamatory, e.g.: unkind story about supervisor who “got her panties in a bunch over . . .” You get the idea.

Yes, the litigation opponent will be very interested in what you say.

No, it has no obligation to keep your personal business secret.

Yes, your employer will be even more interested than the opponent.

No, it probably won’t do you any good to erase embarrassing messages — in litigation they look for trashed messages and can usually recover them.

And yes, yes, all this can really happen to you. In fact, it is becoming more common all of the time!

You should never use your business email for anything but business.  And when you do, it should be strictly business.

You could be next.


CLIFF TUTTLE has been a Pennsylvania lawyer for over 45 years and (inter alia) is a real estate litigator and legal writer. The posts in this blog are intended to provide general information about legal topics of interest to lawyers and consumers with a Pittsburgh and Western Pennsylvania focus. However, this information does not constitute legal advice and there is no lawyer-client relationship created when you read this blog. You are encouraged to leave comments but be aware that posted comments can be read by others. If you wish to contact me in privacy, please use the Contact Form located immediately below this message. I will reply promptly and in strict confidence.

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