your emails can come back to haunt you…

private_470x315You know those “private, internal emails” that get sent around within your organization, never meant to be seen by outsiders?  Well, one day, they may in fact be seen – and this is an example of what could happen.

The exposure of what appear to be email messages from the Climate Research Unit of the University of East Anglia show conversations between leading climate change researchers which were obviously not meant for mass distribution.  The messages exposed include:

  • Drafts of scientific papers
  • Unflattering comments about climate change skeptics
  • Discussions in which scientists talk about using “tricks” to deal with statistical inconsistencies in their work.

Of course, the critics of the theory that human activity are having a field day with this:  “‘This is not a smoking gun; this is a mushroom cloud,’ said Patrick J. Michaels, a climatologist who has long faulted evidence pointing to human-driven warming and is criticized in the documents.”   According to the Times article, “The evidence pointing to a growing human contribution to global warming is so widely accepted that the hacked material is unlikely to erode the overall argument. However, the documents will undoubtedly raise questions about the quality of research on some specific questions and the actions of some scientists.”

Whether or not you believe that human activity is messing with the climate, there is a lesson to be learned here.  Unlike the ephemeral casual hallway conversations we have with our coworkers, electronic communications like email, instant messages, and in some cases phone calls leave artifacts which can surface long after they are written and which may, when viewed in isolation, provide a very different picture than what was intended.  And hackers are now the only threat… emails may also be exposed in the course of legal discovery during litigation.  Yikes!

The moral of the story?  When writing an email or IM, you need to think about what message it would give when read by an outsider, out of context, months or even years after the events which prompted it.  Another way that life is getting just a bit more complicated in our modern age…

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