The Dangers of Auto-complete and Reply All

Goldman Sachs is going to court to try to force Google to delete an e-mail that one of its contractors sent to the wrong e-mail address. This type of incident might be more common than we would like. In fact, less than 2 months ago, I received an e-mail from one of the people I had recently communicated with that was not intended for me, but for someone with the same first name, leading me to speculate that the auto-complete feature may have suggested the wrong e-mail to the sender. As soon as I realized that the message was not intended for me, I immediately deleted the e-mail.

I have some doubts that taking legal action will accomplish what Goldman Sachs wants; if the information is truly as confidential as they believe, there is no telling where it is by now. If the unintended recipient wanted to take advantage of the information, he could have immediately printed it out, saved it to his hard drive, or even distributed it to friends by now. What’s next? Will Goldman Sachs get a warrant to search his house? What about all the people he has ever talked to?

Possibly the most important lesson to learn from this incident is that once something is leaked over the Internet, it is nearly impossible to know who else has a copy and to stop it from spreading. In fact, due to the Streisand effect, trying to suppress information may actually lead to even more unwanted attention and exposure.

This incident raises the question of whether auto-complete is safe to use; after all, if the wrong e-mail is suggested, then sensitive information could be sent to the wrong person. Personally, I think auto-complete is a double-edged sword.

When you use auto-complete, you save yourself from having to type out an entire e-mail address. At the same time, auto-complete helps reduce the chances that the destination e-mail is incorrect because you mistyped it. Because you type fewer characters before a completed e-mail is suggested, any errors are probably due to auto-complete suggesting the wrong e-mail; not because you mistyped. Using auto-complete, however, could lead to the kind of mistake that happened in the Goldman Sachs incident; the wrong e-mail is suggested, and the sender accepts it without checking.

I cannot suggest avoiding auto-complete completely, because I think its advantages are real. Its primary weakness (suggesting the wrong e-mail) can be eliminated if the sender checks the “To:” field carefully before sending the e-mail. This is something that needs to be done anyways, even if you choose to manually type out the recipient’s address instead of using auto-complete.

There is another method of reducing the chances that an e-mail is received by an unintended recipient, though this method was not a factor in the Goldman Sachs incident. When replying to an e-mail, make sure to choose “reply” instead of “reply all” if the information is only intended for the original sender. The “reply all” feature sends your reply to both the original sender and everyone that the sender CCed; confidential information can easily be leaked this way. Furthermore, if you were a BCC recipient, your cover is now blown; everyone who was CCed knows you received a copy.

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