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E-mail insecurities

Trying to turn e-mail into the be-all and end-all of collaboration has considerable downsides.

Awhile back, we looked into the possibility of developing HTML newsletters. In theory, they would allow us to send rich messages to our subscribers, complete with images and poppy text (and ads). But when we examined the situation, we found a hodge-podge of standards that make the browser wars look like the XFL–all hype. The reality is the various e-mail platforms–Lotus Notes, ccMail, Netscape Messenger, Microsoft Outlook, Eudora, etc.–all deal with HTML in different ways–sometimes radically so. So we scrapped the idea and continue to send newsletters via plain text format.

I was disappointed with this situation until I read a story in yesterday’s New York Times about HTML e-mail spying problems. A related story on our site today tells of JavaScript code that a sender can embed in HTML e-mails, enabling the sender to see how the message is used–whether it is read, to whom it is forwarded, and what text is appended to subsequent forwards.

Most of us see this “bug” in action if we use recent versions of Outlook. Each time I send a message and it is opened by a another Outlook user, I get a message to this effect. This is helpful in follow-up communications. If someone is blowing me off I can take this into account later. But the feature can be used for more deviant purposes. Spammers can use it to test for active e-mail accounts. (Always delete spam before opening it.) Deviant competitors can uncover trade secrets if they carefully craft their messages and monitor how they’re used.

So it is not such a bad thing that we’re limited to text e-mail for our newsletters. If we had gone ahead with HTML, imagine the backlash. The backlash will be strong enough as it is. Corporate policies will require all users to disable their JavaScript functions. Privacy groups will lobby for legislation to ban the practice of e-mail spying. And consumers will be bombarded by messages from advocacy groups telling them how to protect themselves from spying.

What seems like such a powerful medium actually has lots of downsides, not the least of which is the drain on our time managing the influx of messages. Security is another rather large chink in the armor of the fastest growing communications medium in history. Every time a downside is exposed, software makers respond with new technology designed to circumvent the problem.

And there will be no shortage of demand for technology to enhance our ability to use e-mail–sophisticated filtering and virus protection, automated forwarding and response, unified messaging, etc. I don’t see an end in sight of the added features. The result is that some of the simplest software has become bloatware. It leaves me pining for Pine–one of the first clients for the Unix platform that could only display ASCII text and could not send or receive attachments.

Think of how much less complicated our IT world would be if we had limited e-mail to this simple format and used other technologies for marketing (WWW), file exchange (FTP), short messaging (IM), scheduling (phones), and other tasks–no spam, no worm viruses, less flaming, no exponential multiplication of messages–e-mail utopia.

James Mathewson is editorial director of and ComputerUser magazine.

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