You've got mail trouble

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Misc

Alberto Gonzales won't do it anymore, and President Bush hasn't done it in years.

It got Harry Stonecipher fired from the top post at Boeing Co., and it earned investment banker Frank Quattrone an 18-month prison sentence.

The culprit? E-mail.

Indispensable for uniting workplaces and private lives, e-mail has proven adept at bringing down highflying careers as well. Those billions of electronic messages lurking in cyberspace have provided the smoking gun in scandal after scandal.

Among top officials in government and business, balancing the benefits of e-mail with its potential pitfalls has become a difficult judgment call. With the number of messages skyrocketing, nearly every corporation and arm of government has imposed common-sense guidelines for e-mailing. Many use sophisticated software to actively monitor traffic for potential problems.

Nevertheless, some high-profile individuals have concluded that the risks of e-mail outweigh the benefits. Their decisions may hold lessons for less prominent members of society who currently e-mail, send instant messages and blog with abandon. And they point to a continuing erosion of privacy as digital communication advances.

Atty. Gen. Gonzales told the Chicago Tribune editorial board last week that he worries about "perfectly innocent" electronic communication being twisted by critics of the administration. With that in mind, he has gone cold turkey: "I don't get e-mail and I don't send e-mail," he said.

His boss, President Bush, has sworn off e-mail as well. Once an avid e-mailer, Bush sent his last cyber-message in the days before his 2001 inauguration, telling friends and family that his correspondence would be considered a public record from the moment he took office.

In a speech before the American Society of Newspaper Editors this spring, Bush explained that he was forced to give up e-mail to prevent the disclosure of "personal stuff," such as correspondence with his daughters. "I've made an easy decision there," he said. "I just don't do it. Which is sad, really, when you think about it."

Top lawyers have been urging that kind of caution for years. E-mail is dangerously overused, said Robert Morvillo, the New York defense attorney who defended Martha Stewart in a criminal case involving a disputed e-mail. "They pop up in virtually every investigation. It's almost like a legal wiretap."

Awareness of the risks is spreading outward from corner offices in Manhattan and Washington, D.C.--the nation's epicenters of high-profile e-mail gaffes. Executives in California still hit the send button far too much for their own good, said Chicago corporate lawyer Robert Tarun. "E-mail traffic among high-level execs decreases from the West Coast to the East Coast, but the West is learning."

The high-level paranoia about the perils of e-mail comes amid booming usage. The number of active electronic mailboxes in the world has more than tripled in the past five years to 1.1 billion, according to the Radicati Group Inc., a California research firm. Messages exceed 20 billion a day.

For every prominent person who steers clear of e-mail, many others embrace it.

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