I don’t think it’s unfair to say that e-mail has revolutionized human communication. As someone who grew up before electronic mail became so prolific, I can appreciate the many benefits of a cheap, rapid method of correspondence. For most of my adolescence, the only way for average individuals to have long-distance conversations was by telephone or through the mail. Along came e-mail offering virtually instant, free interaction regardless of distance. Despite these significant benefits, e-mail isn’t without its problems. Here are five pitfalls you can teach your users to avoid:
- Not secure
- Open to abuse
- Potentially harmful
- Often impersonal
- Opportunity for misinterpretation
The five pitfalls of e-mail
E-mail suffers the same problems as many other forms of communication, but for some reason most users I’ve worked with don’t seem to understand this. It’s essential for the safety of your organization that you educate users on e-mail’s inherent dangers and how best to combat them. While end users certainly aren’t responsible for the overall security of an organization’s e-mail system, they are an integral part of that system and must be treated as such. Failure to train users on e-mail’s safe and acceptable use will almost certainly result in at least one significant e-mail outage each year.
I’m not sure why most users feel e-mail is somehow impervious to prying eyes, but it’s been my experience that they do. I believe this misconception comes from a lack of understanding about how e-mail actually works. Most end users don’t understand that a sent e-mail is not delivered directly to the intended recipient. Just like a phone call or regular postal dispatch, e-mail is routed through many different channels before arriving at its destination. E-mail messages also often leave traces when moving through these various systems. It is quite possible that a copy of your last e-mail to Aunt Sue in England is sitting on a server or backup tape in Thailand. Teach your users to view e-mail as a postcard—its contents are open to anyone who handles it.
Open to abuse
As with any form of mass communication, e-mail can be a hazard as well as a benefit. Yet for reasons unbeknownst to me, most users don’t consider this possibility. Scams, mass junk mailings, and deceptive advertising can be delivered to a computer just as easily as to a brick-and-mortar mailbox. Teach your users that e-mail is open to the same abuses as regular mail or the telephone. Don’t trust everything that arrives in your inbox.
Taking my previous point one step further, e-mail is probably the easiest method of delivering malicious material to individuals and organizations. Viruses abound in both the physical and virtual world. Make sure your users recognize this fact and teach them to take appropriate precautions. Remind end users not to open unexpected e-mail attachments. It used to be enough for users to ignore messages from unfamiliar people, but with viruses that exploit personal and organizational distribution lists (e.g., Melissa and Love Bug), users must also be wary of their coworkers.
Of all the various forms of personal interaction, e-mail is definitely the most impersonal. You should never send anything important or terribly complicated via e-mail. If at all possible, talk to the other party in person or call them on the phone. I know e-mail is a great way to avoid others, but some conversations need to be vocalized. Teach your users to think of the recipient before sending any e-mail. Is their message clear, and will the addressee understand their message’s meaning?
Opportunity for misinterpretation
Perhaps the greatest obstacle to effective e-mail use is the opportunity for misinterpretation. When talking to someone face-to-face or on the telephone, the tone and inflection of the speaker’s voice convey as much, if not more meaning than their words. E-mail lacks this ability, even with the use of emoticons.
Virtual tone and inflection
Emoticons are symbols—:-) and ;-) are two examples—that supposedly convey information electronically that would normally be communicated non-verbally. Call me old-fashioned, but I think they look silly and should not be used in professional communications.
Education is still essential
While still a bit distorted, the public’s perception of e-mail is changing. With the recent outbreaks of the Melissa and Love Bug viruses, individuals are beginning to understand the possible dangers inherent with electronic communication. Nevertheless, it is still essential for IT professionals to educate end users on the safe, successful, and proper use of e-mail.
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Bill Detwiler has nothing to disclose. He doesn't hold investments in the technology companies he covers.
Bill Detwiler is Managing Editor of TechRepublic and Tech Pro Research and the host of Cracking Open, CNET and TechRepublic's popular online show. Prior to joining TechRepublic in 2000, Bill was an IT manager, database administrator, and desktop support specialist in the social research and energy industries. He has bachelor's and master's degrees from the University of Louisville, where he has also lectured on computer crime and crime prevention.