E-mail. It's fast, efficient, and postage-free. That's the good news.

Here's the rest: It's a "flat" medium where words are easy to take out of context and jokes may not be funny. Worse, it's a medium where words not meant to be public can easily be recovered.

None of this should surprise anyone. Prosecutors in the Microsoft anti-trust trial got much of their material from reams of company e-mail.

The standard caution when using e-mail is this: Never say anything you don't want published on the front page of The Washington Post.

This advice, however, is routinely overlooked. In the past few days, for example, e-mails from the District of Columbia Metropolitan Police Department have been front-page news with the very-same Post Washington noted above. (See: D.C. Police Probe Blue E-Mail, March 28, 2001)

These are not jolly bon-mots sharing expressions of good tidings and joy. Instead, reports the Post, "D.C. police officers have sent each other hundreds of racist, vulgar and homophobic messages on their patrol car computers, and the department is investigating."

And how did the police uncover such missives within their own ranks?

"The objectionable messages," says the Post, "were found among about 4 million computer communications sent over a one-year period." The system was searched after the police chief wanted to find out how the department's computer systems were being used.

The odds are now overwhelming that savvy attorneys in every city will instantly ask for a review of past computer exchanges. Not all of them, of course, just look for the one's with the usual array of bigoted words and terms -- or the one's that mention defendants who can afford decent counsel.

In response, there will be much moaning and crying about "privacy" -- the very value that many civil libertarians feel has been threatened by the FBI's "carnivore" system as well as corporate snooping. There will be claims that the police -- and government -- must be exempt from the usual standards that guide the rest of us because, well, just because.

What does this have to do with real estate?

We live in a litigious world and there is no doubt that what you e-mail may be used against you. It would be surprising that any claim filed against a realty broker (or anyone else) from this point forward will not now include a thorough -- and intrusive -- demand to search all computer systems and records.

What to do?

  1. Realize that e-mail is a flat medium. What you mean may not be fully reflected in what you write -- or may be subject to gross misinterpretation.
  2. What's on your computer is likely not removed when you press the "delete" key. Instead, access to the file may be limited, but the item may still be there. If you want to erase content, consider a product designed to do such work, such as the wonderfully-named Kremlin program.
  3. Don't quickly write things you will later regret. E-mail allows for immediate responses -- the very type most likely to be thoughtless. Instead, hold those thoughts and respond after passions have cooled.
  4. If you throw-out, re-sell, or donate a computer, make certain the hard disk has been erased so that no personal or business content can be recovered. You just know that in the future there will be a story showing how some company -- or police department -- donated 50 computers to a charity, machines with thousands of racist messages that were easily recovered from old hard drives.
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