At work yesterday I received an email that had been forwarded four times in order to land in my inbox. The original sender was an employee of a publishing company sending a Word document to a staff member at my university. The document was called “book display poster windsor oct 12 2006.doc”, and its contents are exactly what the title would imply. Why would I bother writing about this? Well, the original email contained nothing but the .doc attachment and the following:
This message contains confidential information, may be protected by legal rules relating to privileged information, and is intended only for the individual named. You are hereby notified that unless authorized any dissemination, distribution or copying of this e-mail, or disclosure of its contents to anyone, is strictly prohibited. Please notify the sender immediately by e-mail if you have received this e-mail by mistake, and delete this e-mail from your system. Thank you.
The staff member who received the confidential book display poster forwarded it to all the members of the School of Social Work in which she works—perhaps 20 people. Her email said “Please see the attached poster” and it in turn included this:
The information in this e-mail is directed in confidence solely to the person(s) named above and may contain confidential and/or privileged material. This information shall not otherwise be distributed, copied or disclosed. If you have received this e-mail in error, please notify the sender immediately via return e-mail and destroy the original message. Thank you.
There’s an important difference between these two warnings. The first at least allows for dissemination if authorized, whereas the second quite clearly states that distribution is prohibited. One of the recipients of the second, a faculty member, in turn forwarded the email to a librarian colleague of mine. Her email said “thought you night [sic] be interested in the bookshow below”, and she too included the caveat:
The information in this email is directed in confidence solely to the person(s) named above and may contain confidential and/or privileged material. This information shall not otherwise be distributed, copied or disclosed. If you have received this email in error, please notify the sender immediately via return email and destroy the original message. Thank you.
Note that the faculty member spells email with no hyphen. Otherwise the text of her warning is the same as that of the staff member. My colleague forwarded the whole mess to me, thankfully with no such warning.
Do I need to add that I consider warnings of this nature absurd and unenforceable? Perhaps the lawyers in my readership will set me straight, but surely this kind of thing has no legal weight. Can I honestly be expected to have entered into an agreement not to share correspondence simply be having received it with such a warning? I doubt it. Not to mention the fact that I only received this email because three people ignored such warnings.
Finally, most importantly, I think including blanket legalish warnings of this nature in the signature of an email greatly diminishes the notion of confidentiality. Admittedly, the phrase used is “may contain confidential and/or privileged material.” Perhaps that leaves it up to the recipient to determine whether to consider the email confidential, but the clear intent of these warnings is to give the impression that it was sent in confidence. It concerns me that by slapping the word confidential on correspondence that is in fact not only not confidential but is actually intended for dissemination, we begin to lose the sense of what confidential really means.