Some business people can never be too self-important or officious, so it must have been like a wondrous gift from heaven to all them when some unnamed martinet came up with the email confidentiality notice.

If you’re a normal person, you will have completely ignored these legalistic proclamations that are found at the bottoms of emails. And the bottom is an appropriate place to find them, because they seem intended to cover one’s ass with authoritative-sounding boilerplate about how this is CONFIDENTIAL information that MUST NOT be shared and if you are someone other than the INTENDED RECIPIENT, you are OBLIGATED to notify the sender IMMEDIATELY, destroy this email and then PULL YOUR EYES OUT.

Spilling secrets

Usually, these notices accompany emails that bear the top-secret news that the office windows will be cleaned next Thursday or show a cute picture of a monkey on a surfboard. It makes you wonder what kind of warning might be appropriate for something truly sensitive, such as when you email top-secret Air Force nuclear missile launch codes to Marge in accounts. What would it say on a truly confidential email? “If you even suggest that you may have ever even HEARD of the TOTAL AND UTTER DESTRUCTION contained herein, you will IMMEDIATELY be deported to a portion of rural Indiana that does not even have CABLE and your children will be DENIED ADMITTANCE to an above-average college, PRIVATE OR PUBLIC, cross my heart and hope to smash your mouse. If you are a foreign national or a member of a known terrorist organisation, including real estate agents, YOU MUST NOT READ ANY OF THIS.”

"It makes you wonder what kind of warning might be appropriate for something truly sensitive, such as when you email top-secret Air Force nuclear missile launch codes to Marge in accounts"

Now here are some questions for you: have any of these warnings of dire consequences ever stopped you from forwarding an email to an unintended recipient? Have they ever caused you to warn someone that the photo of the monkey is confidential and privileged information? Have you ever actually called the sender and confessed that a message reached you in error? If you can answer ‘yes’ to any of those, answer one more question: how long have you lived in the medium-security confinement facility for the criminally gullible? The tendency of receivers to ignore these warnings is exceeded only by the naiveté of senders to include them. The last person I knew who thought that sending information over the internet was a good way to keep something confidential had lost the function of an entire side of his brain in a freakish pool cue accident.

For the sake of senders and receivers everywhere, I conducted an experiment. I called my friend Mary Ann, who is a 911 operator and I posed the question to her of violated confidentiality:

Mary Ann: 911 operator.

Me: Help me! I was forwarded an email that was intended for someone else and may contain confidential information. I want to report the person who sent this to me. I’m sure it’s illegal.

Mary Ann: Uh…

Me: You should send a patrol car.

Mary Ann: Ummmm… no, I don’t think this requires immediate police response. Does this mail maybe include information about stock transactions or do you think it’s some sort of mail fraud?

Me: Ha! Nice try. You’re not going to trick me to reveal to you privileged or confidential information. What do you take me for, an idiot?

Mary Ann: [clears throat]

Me: Hello?

Mary Ann: Well, if it did contain information about something like a stock transaction, that’s probably a federal thing and you should call the FBI.

Me: Do you think they’ll also want to know what’s in the message?

Mary Ann: Probably.

Me: Damn.

See the problem confidentiality notices have caused? Thousands of people just like me will be calling the FBI, reporting crimes but unable to give them any details. My plea is to stand up for sanity and you, my anonymous friend, are my intended recipient.