Proof of delivery
Local government officials and employees now are generally comfortable using e-mail to send important information and contracts. However, many people do not realize the risks of sending messages with standard e-mail systems that offer virtually no delivery proof or message protection.
As lawyers have been arguing successfully for years, anyone who receives an e-mail can change the message content and attachments and claim it to be the original e-mail. There is no way to tell that it has been changed. One government official from Worcester, Mass., learned that lesson two years ago, when he wrote a message to a constituent about his opinion on a bill. The constituent sent the e-mail to a local newspaper after changing the text of the original message to misrepresent the official’s point of view. Because there was no effective way to prove that the message had been altered, the official had to battle the public and the newspaper based only on his word.
Although many local governments have security measures on computers that permit only authorized individuals to use them, that only restricts access to certain applications on that machine. It does not necessarily stop anyone from sending an e-mail that appears to be from someone else’s name and e-mail address. A name and address in the e-mail account section of an e-mail application easily can be changed, replacing it with someone else’s information.
In disputes about content, timing, sending or receiving of e-mail messages, few people can prove that an e-mail was ever sent, what time or date it was sent, or that it was actually received along with all attachments. The fact that the message is in a “sent” folder proves nothing, because any e-mail message can be dragged into that folder.
The time and date on a saved copy are legally meaningless because they are in plain text format, which easily can be altered. The delivery receipts that standard e-mail programs send also provide little value because they can be altered and rely on the receiver to send them back.
To avoid those risks, some government agencies might choose instead to send hard copies through regular mail. Alternatively, a growing number are using registered e-mail services that certify messages, including content and attachments, were sent and received, much like registered mail sent through the postal service. The sender receives a tamper-detectable receipt with a digital snapshot of the e-mail transaction, which can be used to recreate the original message and verify content and delivery status in case of a dispute.
As electronic communications grow in volume and importance, government officials should take measures to ensure that their messages are protected. If it matters whether an e-mail message is received, read, and represented accurately, then officials should take precautions to minimize liability, disputes and headaches.
The author is vice president of business planning and strategy for Los Angeles-based RPost Registered E-mail.