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Not for your eyes only - Beware: your e-mail may one day come back to haunt you

Think your e-mail is safe from the prying eyes of the Big Bad Corporation? Think again. Both corporate and personal e-mails are admissible as evidence, especially in criminal investigations. "E-mail is a prime source for investigators because people are often rather careless and [say] things in an e-mail they would never put in a letter," says Michael Geist, a University of Ottawa professor who specializes in technology law. "There is this false sense of privacy that I think people have. They're working in the privacy of their own office or their own home and so they think that somehow their communications are private."

In the past, when a lawsuit arose, corporations used to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars searching through backup tapes for a set of particular e-mails. "Now, with the right technology, it's really as simple as using Google," says Paul Chen, president and CEO of Fortiva Inc., a North American software company that develops e-mail archiving solutions for corporations. "Say I want all the e-mails between Paul and John between this date and that date. You just type it in--and it's done."

Chen says regulatory pressures and the increased threat of litigation have forced many large corporations to invest in software that allows them to track all electronic conversations, including e-mails, and instant and encrypted BlackBerry messages. And contrary to the perception that deleted e-mails somehow disappear into the ether, retrieving discarded messages from a company server is a piece of cake, according to Chen. "It surprises me how many people forget that all this kind of stuff is retrievable," adds Peter Wardle, a partner with corporate litigation firm Wardle Daley LLP in Toronto. "These people are all crazy. If they think they have any rights at all...they're nuts."

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