Neither Rain, Nor Sleet, Nor Virtual Snow…

How reliable, and how secure, is your e-mail?

For many people, e-mail has become an important part of a busy daily routine.

And, for many of those, the technology has proven a mixed blessing. Here's an example that illustrates my point. Recently I received a e-mail that said: "Hello, I emailed you for prayers and guidance while I was depressed prior to Christmas and never got a response. Fortunately, I was able to weather my low moments but was surprised to not receive any words of encouragement. Please take these kinds of e-mails seriously in case someone really is looking forward to some spiritual comfort from you."

This person was presuming his e-mail had reached me when, in fact, I never saw it. Did he make a typographical mistake with my e-mail address? Was my mail server temporarily down? Did it get accidentally deleted? Did another brother respond, but the transmittal failed to go through? There are many possibilities; the bottom line is, this person who needed help had—unfortunately—presumed absolute e-mail reliability.

I maintain a mailing list called "Companions of the Holy Eucharist." It goes out to about 500 people roughly once a week. Every time I send out a message to the list around ten come back to me. They're accompanied by a message from the system titled: "Undeliverable."

Why does this happen? Sometimes a person has exceeded the number of e-mails they are allowed to store on their mail server. Another might switch to a new e-mail service and forget to inform people of a change of e-address. Others have their e-mail accounts cancelled due to lack of activity. Sometimes I am informed that the first try of an e-mail didn't go through, but more attempts would be made automatically. Several days later I'm then informed the e-mail was undeliverable in a number of attempts.

How can you be sure somebody has read your e-mail?

There is no foolproof verification system available. However most e-mail programs, such as Microsoft's Outlook and Outlook Express packages, feature a "Request Read Receipt" function under the "Tools" menu. You can check off a box when you compose or reply to an e-mail. AOL users have a similar "Return Receipt" option they can check off as well (but it only works for e-mail sent to other AOL members). When you select this option the person receiving your e-mail will see a message pop up when they open your e-mail message. They have the option of immediately sending you a "read receipt" e-mail reply to let you know that they have received your message.

For urgent messages that demand an immediate reply or attention, sometimes a little e-mail trick can work. When composing or replying to an e-mail with Outlook or Outlook Express under "Message" on the menu, there is a "Set Priority" option. It can be set to Low, Normal or High. When I have an urgent message I usually select "High" priority. This does not effect how fast an e-mail is delivered, but it does mark the e-mail with a red priority flag. The person receiving the e-mail may notice it's a priority and give it swift attention.

Because e-mail is almost instantaneous to many parts of the world people have come to expect an almost instantaneous response. Even low priority e-mails not replied to on the same day received may get a follow up e-mail from the sender saying "Did you get my e-mail?!!!" or "I'm offended because you didn't respond." A vocational candidate recently e-mailed asking, "I just wanted to follow up my email...Since you have not responded, can I assume that the response to my inquiry is negative?" Only four days had gone by.

Now some Catholic organizations and individuals use what is called an "Autoresponder" to take care of this problem. Any e-mail messages received get an automatic reply from them. Then at a later time they may or may not respond to the e-mail personally. Given the number of e-mails an organization or popular individual may get in a given day sometimes this is a necessity.

Unfortunately, private information shared in e-mail is not always so private. Be sure to check your e-mail provider's user agreement for their policy on privacy. Of course the recipient's e-mail provider has a privacy policy, also. And your e-mail is temporarily stored on other computers on its way to its final destination. Governments, plus those sharing a cable connection, etc., could intercept it if they wanted to.

As Microsoft Corporation found out, e-mail messages can even be used as evidence in court. And if you are sending the e-mail from work, you can be almost 99% sure your company is monitoring it. So how can you send a private e-mail with sensitive personal information? The answer is encryption.

Outlook and Outlook Express have an "Encrypt" option under the "Tools" menu. . Encryption scrambles your e-mail in such a way that only the recipient can make sense of it. Send a 128-bit encrypted e-mail and even the FBI won't be able to break!

In order to encrypt an e-mail, you will need to purchase a "Digital ID." In order to learn more about Digital Ids, go to verisign.com/products-services/security-services/pki/pki-application/email-digital-id/index.html.

It will cost you about $19.95 a year to have your own digital ID. If you want to ensure your private e-mail information remains private it is well worth the cost.

E-mail is a fast and cheap way to communicate. It's just not a foolproof absolutely private one. Keep those points in mind — and wonder how you ever got along without it.

Monthly Web Picks

This month we'll look at e-mail mailing lists.

The Catholic Information Network hosts 46 public mailing lists, covering a broad range of topics at cin.org/mailman/listinfo. The network also hosts a number of unadvertised.

CatholiCity Crosstalk at catholicity.com/crosstalk/ hosts 15 mailing lists. While lists are monitored, CatholiCity does not screen messages before they are posted. They do take action against anyone who postst offensive, uncharitable, or heretical messages.

Yahoo hosts 526 mailing lists under the Catholic category at http://dir.groups.yahoo.com/dir/Religion___Beliefs/Christianity/Denominations_and_Sects/Catholic. Although I wouldn't agree with Yahoo listing Catholicism under a Christian denomination or sect, you still may find some good Catholic lists here. You'll find a short description of the list, the number of members and archived messages for public lists.

MSN's 578 mailing lists fortunately are listed directly under the Christianity category at http://communities.msn.com/browse.msnw?catid=366. You will find a description of the list, the number of members and an activity meter for each list.

Brother John Raymond welcomes
e-mail at john@aplusconsultingnow.com.

He is author of Catholics on the Internet: 2000-2001,
Webmaster of www.monkofadoration.org