Who is Reading My E-mail?

Erich Kafferlin | February 15, 2019

In the Middle Ages, important documents were closed using wax seals. This was done to prevent unauthorized access. Those letters (or perhaps just junk mail) in your mailbox have been sealed by glue for generations. It’s safe to say the concept of protecting our private written word is nothing new. But what protects our e-mail from prying eyes? 

The Law

The Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution says the “right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated.” In layman’s terms, this law protects your privacy from intrusion. Additionally, at least ten states offer further rights to privacy in their state constitutions. Now what about e-mail privacy, specifically?

E-mail Privacy

It’s important to find the correct balance between privacy and access to evidence by law enforcement. In fact, law enforcement is not able to access your e-mail without following proper legal process. This usually involves obtaining a search warrant. In which case, probable cause must be established in order to satisfy the judge. 


E-mail was transported in plain text at first. However, this made it a bit too easy for electronic eavesdropping. Fortunately for us, transport encryption was developed. This protects the content of your message while it is traveling through the vast network of servers. When it reaches its destination, encryption on the receiver’s end puts it back into a readable format. The best part? All this happens seamlessly without the need to break out your Little Orphan Annie decoder ring. 

Privacy Settings

If you use a free web-based e-mail service, you might occasionally notice advertisements appearing on the page that eerily match up with some of the contents of your Inbox. How do they know I just put in an order at Hot Topic? This is called contextual advertising. Your e-mail and web activity are tracked to produce ads targeted to you. While this is completely allowable, most providers understand their users’ desire for additional privacy and let you opt out. The Denver Post has compiled a handy list of ways to opt out of this content


The most important guardian of your e-mail privacy is you. Most e-mail accounts are unauthorizedly accessed due to mistakes by the account holder. Is your e-mail password “password123”? Do you click on suspicious links you receive in your Inbox? Then you are essentially leaving the door open to e-mail intruders. 

Passwords should not be easy to guess. For example, avoid things like your child’s name, your birthday, etc. And be sure to use a combination of numbers, symbols, lower-case and upper-case letters. You should also change your passwords regularly.

Links in e-mail messages may take you to phishing sites. Be wary. Also, don’t give your password to anyone. Even if they claim to be from a provider or someone you do business with, take pause. They will never ask you to provide your password.  

In this digital age, the way we share our written word will continue to evolve. However, privacy doesn’t have to be compromised in the process. We can continue to enjoy the fruits of communication by combining the protections of law, technology and common sense. 

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Erich Kafferlin

Erich is a Senior Privacy & Compliance Specialist for IP Services. He is a graduate of Edinboro University of Pennsylvania, holding a Bachelor of Arts in Speech & Hearing Sciences with postgraduate work in Speech-Language Pathology and Forensic Accounting.