Who Holds The Key To The E-Mailbox?

REPORTERS ARE PAID TO BE NOSY. BUT there are limits, at least if you work at the Los Angeles Times. Earlier this month Times editors recalled a reporter in the paper's Moscow bureau because they believed he was repeatedly reading his colleague's electronic-mail messages, according to sources at the Times. The reporter, Michael Hiltzik, was caught in a sting operation using phony messages. Hiltzik, back in Moscow temporarily, would not comment and editors at the paper said they couldn't discuss a "personnel matter."

Whatever the details of the case, it's clear that technology has created new opportunities for the old-fashioned office snoop. A few years ago he or she might have rifled through a colleague's desk. But with the advent of Email, overly curious co-workers can peek at everything from confidential performance evaluations to billets-doux in an office romance without ever getting out of their own chairs. Passwords create an illusion of privacy. But computer-systems administrators must maintain complete lists of those codes: who guards the guardians of the network? Would-be hackers can experiment endlessly trying to crack a colleague's code. And too often, the secret word is something easy to guess.

Under the federal Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986, E-mail gets most of the same protections as letters and phone conversations. Outside agencies, such as the FBI or the police, cannot read an individual's E-mail without a warrant. But the law is hazy on whether bosses can read their employees' E-mail. Some employees have sued when managers read their E-mail, and pending court cases may help define the legal limits of electronic spying, but the issue of what employers can read "is still up for grabs," says David Greschler, director of exhibits at the Boston Computer Museum. Greschler is preparing a show on computer networks and privacy, to open next year. "A company can say, 'We own everything you write'," Greschler says. "If you're using your company's E-mail system, you're using their resources."

Prying bosses and offended workers run into trouble when they work at companies that have not announced explicit rules governing E-mail. Some legal experts argue that without clear guidelines employees expect that no unauthorized eyes can see what they write. if a company allows managers "to read employee E-mail, employees should be made aware so they can use the system appropriately," says Shari Steele of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an advocacy group.

The best advice for employees is to be cautious. "Don't put anything in writing that you wouldn't want other people to read," advises Bill Moroney, executive director of the Electronic Messaging Association, a trade group. In other words, if you can't say anything nice, don't say anything. Someone may be watching--or reading.