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One Step Ahead
October 7, 2008, Volume 55, No. 7

One Step Ahead

Another tip in a series provided by the Offices of Information Systems & Computing and Audit, Compliance & Privacy.

Several Types of Risks in E-mail

Sometimes it’s absolutely necessary to share Social Security numbers (SSNs) with colleagues; however, sharing SSNs via e-mail is never a good idea and is prohibited by University policy. Nor is it a good idea to share other sensitive data via e-mail. Almost all e-mail on campus is sent and stored in clear text, neither protected by encryption in transit nor at rest on the sender’s and recipient’s hard drives. 

There are many dangers associated with including sensitive and confidential data in e-mail messages. This includes information directly written in the body of the message or appended as an attachment. The message could be hacked or intercepted during transit, exposing the people involved to identity theft and the University to reputational harm.

Further, even though you may be confident of the security of your own system, there is no way to ensure the security of the computer or handheld device your colleague uses to check e-mail. For example, it could be read or downloaded to their home computer, which may be more susceptible to being hacked than their Penn-managed computer.

Another risk is that the recipient could carelessly reply or forward the data to someone else. Finally, e-mail data can get buried in a person’s inbox or sent mail folder, causing someone to forget over time that they actually have sensitive files on their computer. All of these potential mishaps illustrate why sharing sensitive data via e-mail is not a secure and safe practice and should always be avoided.  


To receive weekly OneStepAhead  tips via email, send email to listserv@lists.upenn.edu with the following text in the body of the message:  sub one-step-ahead <your name>.

For additional tips, see the One Step Ahead link on the Information Security website: www.upenn.edu/computing/security/.

Almanac - October 7, 2008, Volume 55, No. 7