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Big Brother is Watching


Everybody’s done it. You’re working late, and you notice that a colleague has sent you an email marked “great joke”. You open the email only to discover that despite the fact that it’s really funny, it’s also a little offensive. You chuckle, forward it off to your husband or wife, and think nothing more about it. After all, what’s a little private joke between consenting adults?

Unfortunately, there is absolutely nothing private about email – any email.

“Email is an insecure system based on a system of trust that was devised nearly 40 years ago,” said Brian Elston, administrator of TVOntario’s email service. “Nothing should be said in an email that you wouldn’t want broadcast in public. An email is about as private and secure as a postcard.”

For school administrators this should mean that the content of any email sent from a school server should always be considered a public document. Because of the very public nature of email communication, the most important way to protect your position and reputation is to ensure that the content of any email, like all other forms of communication, is impeccable.

When in doubt, consult your board’s Acceptable Use Policy for computers and Internet. This is the same policy that students are required to adhere to when using school email or Internet services, and with good reason. Network administrators can routinely review the system to ensure that it is being used appropriately.

If an email is found to violate board policies, you could face disciplinary measures from your board. The Ontario College of Teachers can also become involved if your correspondence is found to violate the Ontario College of Teachers Ethical Standards for the Teaching Profession, which clearly states that communications must, “…model respect for human dignity, spiritual values, cultural values, freedom, social justice, democracy and the environment.”

So what happens if you have second thoughts after sending an email? Elston explains that deleting an email after it has been sent isn’t a solution.“There are a number of processes that are in place for deleting an email, depending on whether or not the email is held on a server (server side), or whether it’s actually downloaded from your computer (client side).”

When you delete an email from a server side email system for example, it may be gone from your computer, but it isn’t removed from the system. As a rule, it will be held in the system until the server does what’s called a “trash collection.” In most cases, this is done every night. But the ghost of emails past doesn’t end there. Most servers are backed up to an archive every day before the messages are trashed. A copy of your deleted email will be held on that archive for a set period of time. Depending on the ISP (Internet Service Provider) this could be anywhere from several months to several years.

These archive systems are maintained, in part, to protect the ISP in the event of a criminal investigation. These can involve anything from suspected child pornography and other criminal proceedings to issues involving national security.

“The RCMP have the right to ask a system administrator for copies of emails at virtually any time,” said Elston, “which is why most services use an archival back-up system.”

Emails that are downloaded or sent directly from your computer aren’t secure either. A huge number of steps happen to the data between the sending computer and the destination computer on the web. To illustrate his point, Elston called up data from another remote system on the Internet. Using a computer utility known as Traceroute, he was able to identify 28 sites through which the data passed.

“At any one of those locations, data can be changed, rerouted, scanned or sent to an off-line (routing) server,” remarked Elston. “And you have absolutely no way of knowing.”

If this feels a little like Big Brother is watching you, you’re right. In the wake of 9-11, a large percentage of emails are now scanned, especially those that are routed through the U.S. These scanning systems look for certain key words that are considered to be subversive or illegal. Elston cautions that the granularity of the scanning process is so minute that it can go down to the level of a single word in the text of the email or a pixel from a photo attachment. Encryption of email, while somewhat effective in disguising content, can ultimately be broken and decoded.

“If you’re sending stuff that’s inappropriate, sooner or later, somehow, somewhere, somebody will find you out,” advises Elston. “Always think twice before you click that send button. Ask yourself, “do I really, really want to send this?” If there’s any question in your mind, don’t do it.”

The following list of Dos and Don’ts for using email will help protect your professional reputation and your personal sanity:


  • Do read and understand your board’s Acceptable Use Policy.
  • Do notify your system administrator if you receive an inappropriate message that violates this Acceptable Use Policy.
  • Do protect yourself by keeping hard copies of any questionable emails and/or forwarding them to your home email account.
  • Do seek legal advice.


  • Don’t forward jokes, chain letters or bulk mail messages.
  • Don’t use school email for personal or private communications.
  • Don’t use vulgar, derogatory or obscene language. Never use email for personal attacks or to post private information about another person.
  • Don’t download, copy or store software or shareware without prior permission from your system administrator.

Read more about Professional Legal Expense Insurance for Principals & Vice-Principals (PLEI).