Head Strong: The perils of e-mail: Ponder, then click

email
In 2002, the Pew Internet and American Life project reported that 10 percent of so-called "work e-mailers" had accidently sent an embarrassing e-mail to the wrong person at work.

Plans for Saturday?

That was the subject line of an e-mail I recently received. Someone else with a modem was interested in knowing if we should meet for lunch before catching a train to a Shakespeare matinee in Washington. It sounded enjoyable. For a split second, I gave some thought to going.

The only problem is that I was not the intended recipient. Turns out my editor here at The Inquirer was in the midst of organizing a family trip to the theater in D.C. Somehow I was mistakenly included in the conversation. You might think this is Much Ado About Nothing. But the inadvertent hitting of Send is becoming a part of daily life, sometimes with more serious consequences.

In 2002, the Pew Internet and American Life project reported that 10 percent of so-called "work e-mailers" had accidently sent an embarrassing e-mail to the wrong person at work. By the time the Marlin Co. released its annual Attitudes in the American Workplace study in 2007, that percentage had doubled.

These phenomena strike in workplaces of all kinds, even the White House. Just last week a staffer mistakenly forwarded to thousands of reporters on the White House external contact list a Reuters story headlined "Iraqi PM backs Obama troop exit plan - magazine." Oops. Not exactly what the Bush administration was eager to convey, given the president's support for John McCain.

Speaking of McCain, perhaps the only benefit of his Internet ignorance is that he never has to worry about inadvertently distributing e-mail. Come to think of it, neither must he worry about the twin evil of accidentally striking Reply All.

Of course, merely embarrassing yourself isn't the worst possible scenario. Take the case of Caryn Camp and Stephen Martin, two of the first casualties of the Economic Espionage Act of 1996. Back in 1998, Camp worked for IDEXX Laboratories Inc., a leading manufacturer of veterinary-diagnostics products. On the market for a new job, she e-mailed her résumé to Martin, owner of several companies that competed with IDEXX. Camp planned to leave IDEXX to work for Martin, and soon the e-mails escalated into an exchange of proprietary information in anticipation of that move.

That is, until Camp composed an e-mail whose contents she predicted would make Martin "feel like a kid on Christmas Day" - and mistakenly sent it to IDEXX's head of global marketing. After IDEXX notified the U.S. attorney, Camp and Martin were tried and convicted of conspiring to steal IDEXX trade secrets.

We've all heard stories of accidental e-mail. My favorite? Well, "I have this friend," as they say. He was asked by a woman, who had a gift of endowment, to help arrange a job contact. This caveman thought it appropriate to e-mail his contact to say that "there are two good reasons" you might wish to interview her. You guessed it. He cc'd her on the overture!

Of course, anyone paying attention to "Anchorgate" here in Philadelphia knows the perils associated with the Internet that extend beyond inadvertence. Even when the sender properly addresses the communication, there is still the possibility of unexpected eyes.

Another recent example is presented in the first 12 indictments in Pennsylvania's own "Bonusgate" investigation. Among the evidence presented to prove the existence of taxpayer-funded bonus programs and subsidized campaign work in Harrisburg are thousands of e-mails sent among the accused public servants. That investigation traversed state computers, laptops and BlackBerrys, though nobody mistakenly sent those e-mails to state Attorney General Tom Corbett. Still, once you hit send, your dispatch is out there for anyone to find - and no amount of deleting can turn back the clock.

To be sure, the Internet has benefited our personal and professional lives. As with ATM cards, the TV remote, iPods and Blackberrys, it's difficult to imagine living in a world without such gadgetry. But the hazards associated with the simple click of a mouse are significant. Sometimes using the Internet necessitates a dose of the old-world practicality with which we were all raised: a World Wide Web equivalent of counting to 10 before you speak.

Here's more drastic advice. Mayor Frank Rizzo was fond of saying, "Never send a letter, and never throw one away." Perhaps he was a soothsayer, despite never having heard of Microsoft Outlook.


Michael Smerconish's column appears on Thursdays in The Daily News and on Sundays in Currents. Michael can be heard from 5 to 9 a.m. weekdays on "The Big Talker," WPHT-AM (1210). Contact him via the Web at http://www.mastalk.com.