Bradner's column: Does Bill still use e-mail?

If I were Bill Gates, I'd sure be leery of one aspect of modern technology. And if I were the president or a major officer in just about any major corporation, I'd also be leery.

Watching the low-resolution video of Microsoft's CEO being asked about e-mail he sent or received in years past is bound to make anyone try to remember what damaging or misleading mail he has sent and resolve to take care in the future.

During the discovery process of the government's antitrust suit against Microsoft, vast numbers of the company's documents were subpoenaed, including reams of copies of old e-mail messages. A few of these messages have been used to challenge Microsoft statements.

But even in this trial, Microsoft has not been the only one challenged by its old mail. In fact, Microsoft itself successfully challenged the appointment of Harvard professor Larry Lessig as an independent expert in part by pointing out a joking e-mail message he once sent to a friend.

While the risk of your e-mail messages to friends or business associates coming back to haunt you years later is worrisome enough, one of the features of the Internet is a combination of a seemingly limitless memory and a surprisingly efficient retrieval system. Just about everything that you send to any electronic mailing list or news group, just about anything that someone says about you electronically and any Web pages that might include references to you are all saved someplace.

That is bad enough, but what makes this worse is that someone who is looking for information about you can find many of these references in a few seconds using any number of search engines. Even though I'm somewhat in the public eye as a writer and am involved in the standards world, it is a bit daunting to find more than 1,600 hits on my full name in AltaVista. ( I can take some comfort in the fact that while this is more than I'd like, it pales beside the 111,752 hits that come up for Bill Gates.)Even worse is the fact that this stuff seems to stay around forever. Long after your indiscrete posting to the alt.barney.kill.kill newsgroup has expired in the local news servers, it will linger in some archive. In somewhat of a democratisation brought about by the 'Net, all Internet participants from corporate CEOs to high school kids are equally subject to having potentially embarrassing tidbits from the past pop up at inopportune moments. Like when you find out that the personnel officer at the company you are applying to does a Web search on every job applicant.

This certainly is a privacy issue, but it can be much more, as demonstrated by the Microsoft case. It is a hard process indeed to continually weigh the balance between the convenience and efficiency of e-mail and the possibility of what you are saying being used against you and your company in the future.

Disclaimer: If I were Bill Gates, I would have an endowment five times that of Harvard's. But the above is my opinion, not Bill's or Harvard's.

(Bradner is a consultant with Harvard University's University Information Systems. He can be reached as

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