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July 11th, 2007 Paul Leonard | News Stories
 

Mail Trail

Look who knows you've forwarded their email.

     
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IMAGE: jason walton

If you weren't feeling paranoid enough about the feds' wiretapping or the next-door lady always watering her rosebushes, know this: At least four prominent local nonprofits use — or have used — an email system that lets them spy on their email recipients.

The Portland Schools Foundation, Basic Rights Oregon, Oregon Zoo and Cascade Policy Institute are among 10,000 CoolerEmail users, according to the company that offers the CoolerEmail service. That email system lets senders spy on what happens to the emails they blast to thousands of recipients.

Using decade-old technology , CoolerEmail lets senders track messages from the moment they hit a recipient's inbox. Senders can count the number of times an email is forwarded, how many times a link in the email is hit, and through the innocuous-sounding "Send to a Friend" function, they can also read your email to friends and colleagues.

For groups using the system, tracking comments made by email recipients, often numbering in the thousands, is an invaluable tool to find out who your real friends—and enemies—are.

"Nonprofits and politicians want to find out what people really think of them," said Dylan Boyd, vice-president of eROI, which provides CoolerEmail to clients.

Boyd's brother, Bryan, is the communication coordinator at Basic Rights Oregon. The gay-rights group used CoolerEmail to remove recipients who forward BRO's emails with anti-gay comments. But Bryan Boyd says BRO dropped CoolerEmail two weeks ago for a system without an equivalent Send to a Friend function. He says the switch was because the new system let them target geographic districts, and not because of privacy concerns.

EROI has no problem with turning comments made through Send to a Friend against unsuspecting victims.

"We sent an email about our Christmas party, and someone did 'Send [to] a Friend' and said some pretty nasty things about us," said eROI's Dylan Boyd, who delivered an expensive bottle of wine to the note's author, thanking him for "letting us know how he really feels."

But for some people caught emailing comments that they never dreamed could be viewed by anybody else, the experience of being spied on is humiliating.

"I felt stupid and violated," said Chuck Sheketoff, executive director of the Oregon Center for Public Policy. He realized recently that comments he made could be seen by the email's original sender.

Email privacy rights aren't legally well-defined in the nonprofit and private sectors, said Mark Cohen, an adjunct Portland State University professor who teaches computer ethics. "In this particular situation, the problem is one of non-disclosure," said Cohen, explaining that users who opt into systems like CoolerEmail need to waive their right to keep their electronic conversations private.

CoolerEmail operations director Randall Harrelson says the "Send to a Friend" function is a "commonly used marketing technique" but notes that the company requires its clients to adhere to a strict privacy policy.

In response to WW's calls, the Portland Schools Foundation said it turned off the email system's Send to a Friend function, citing privacy concerns. "It's a new system for us, so I claim some ignorance of the possibilities," said Joan Vallejo, senior communication officer for the schools foundation.

Cascade Policy Institute still has CoolerEmail. And so does Oregon Zoo, where marketing manager Jane Hartline says she used Sent to a Friend "when we first got it, but I quickly got bored with it." With no laws regulating privacy rights of email recipients, Cohen cast the argument against CoolerEmail in moral, not legal terms.

"Even if something has a useful function, doesn't make it right," said Cohen. "The fact that a nonprofit or a charity is involved in this kind of activity doesn't mitigate the deception."

 
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