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FYI: yr e-mail can haunt u 4ever

A word to the unwary: Private missives don't belong on the Internet.

June 06, 2003|Bettijane Levine | Times Staff Writer

Why can't we behave? When the risks are huge and the potential consequences dire, why can't we stop ourselves from typing those suicidal e-mails, hitting the send key and sealing our doom?

This month, it's West Virginia Gov. Bob Wise's turn to ponder those questions. Until a few weeks ago, incumbent Wise was a shoo-in as Democratic candidate in his state's next gubernatorial election. Now, members of his own party are suggesting he resign; Republicans are savoring their improved chances -- and Wise, 55, has proved he is anything but.

The reckless fingers of fate -- his own -- may have typed him right out of the governor's office. And his cyber-trail of decidedly unromantic e-mails to a state employee with whom he may have been romantically involved are making him something of a literary laughingstock as well.

Wise is alleged to have had a relationship with Angela Mascia-Frye, 35, of the West Virginia Development Corp. Both are married -- to other people. And they corresponded by e-mail with the kind of dull propriety that one Web wag described as having all the passion of a tuna sandwich. (The most intimate missives are like this one, from Mascia-Frye to Wise: "Too bad you canceled your visit at our offices. We made special coffee for you today." And like this, from the governor: "Sorry to have missed you tonight at Alex's.... I walked around for an hour ... and called out your name in 5 languages").

There is no proof in the messages that they even had a sexual affair -- nor has either of them admitted specifics of their relationship. But the mere fact that the governor and his possible paramour engaged in extensive e-mail conversation -- 541 of their messages have been retrieved and released to the public, under the Freedom of Information Act -- has put them in harm's way. Mascia-Frye's husband has filed for divorce, and the governor's wife has released a statement saying she is "angry" and their two children are "disappointed" in Wise but still love him.

And so one more casualty of the electronic highway has crashed and burned. Wise certainly isn't the first and won't be the last. (This probably won't happen to President George W. Bush, who reportedly was advised before his inauguration to avoid e-mail entirely while in office. He is said to have sent messages to his friends, telling them he'd be using snail mail during his tenure, because of security risks.)

Gov. Gray Davis' office in Sacramento divulges that Davis doesn't use e-mail either -- although the state's first lady does. Other citizens who demand total privacy and security would be wise to follow suit.

Lesson One: E-mail is never private. And never totally secure. It is indelible and will not be erased when you hit "delete." Somewhere, it will continue to exist in cyberspace. No matter what you do to protect yourself, experts say, e-mail is more exposed than messages on postcards. It is the equivalent of talking on a party line. Your password, no matter how obscure, does not protect you from hackers, snoops or any officer with a warrant to subpoena your e-mails in professional or personal legal matters, such as divorce and custody cases.

Lesson Two: Experts say most people know this rule but continue to ignore it. Ask yourself before you e-mail any message: Would I feel comfortable writing this in longhand, signing my name to it and putting it in a mailbox? If the answer is no, don't put it in an electronic message. Bill Gates, the Big Daddy of computing, didn't follow this rule and was hugely embarrassed as a result. If he couldn't keep himself out of trouble, what makes you think you can?

In the huge antitrust case against Microsoft, Gates was seen worldwide on CNN, admitting that, yes, he had sent the extremely damaging e-mails that were presented in court and that essentially established that his firm had engaged in anti-competitive business practices.

In the Iran-Contra affair of the late '80s, it was Oliver North's e-mail that helped prove that funds had been diverted to unauthorized projects. More recently, in the Enron meltdown, it was executive e-mails within the company that were used to document claims of improper practices.

In the early days of computers, most people's technological tragedies stemmed from simple mistakes, like hitting the wrong button. Linda Ellerbee, author and TV producer, began her career as a journalist for the Associated Press in Dallas. In 1972, she wrote a letter to a friend, which she later described as follows: "I expressed myself candidly about the Dallas City Council, the city of Dallas, the Vietnam War, a man I was dating and, naturally, my employer." She hit "send" and mistakenly sent her missive out over the AP news wire. She was promptly fired.

These days, mistakes are more often made by people who know what they're doing but, at that moment, simply don't care.

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