Popular e-mail tool could lead to legal trouble

A common and seemingly harmless e-mail feature could be getting companies in trouble with the law.

The feature in question? The auto-forwarding function found in Outlook and other popular e-mail clients.

When used improperly, lawyers warn, companies could violate the Federal Wiretap Act, which makes it illegal to intentionally intercept an oral, wire or electronic communication using an electronic, mechanical, or other device.

Employees have used the Wiretap Act to bring employers to court over alleged e-mail privacy violations. Most of those cases have been dismissed.

However, one recent case turned out differently. An IRS employee activated the auto-forward feature on his supervisor’s account — without permission — so he could receive copies of his boss’s messages.

The agent was sentenced to 18 months in jail, a ruling that was recently upheld by an appeals court (Cite: U.S. v. Szymuszkiewicz).

Many employers use auto-forward to send copies of e-mails coming in for former employees to their replacements or ex-supervisors. IT departments also often use e-mail journaling, a similar feature that sends a copy of every incoming and outgoing message to a server for archiving and back-up purposes.

One key to compliance could be the company’s computer use policy. To violate the Federal Wiretap Act, the interception must be done without the other party’s consent. Telling all employees what will be done with their e-mail could help avoid trouble.

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