by Julie Stoddard
Clicking “delete” on any email account usually means more space and goodbye junk mail, but it is important to realize most emails are never really gone.
According to the website mail2web.com, a relatively small number of mail servers are configured to delete email messages after they have been read once, regardless of how a user views messages.
“If you send an email within a business network, that business might have the capability to save and store everything that goes out,” said Spencer Brady, a service desk analyst for BYU’s Office of Information Technology. “People need to know not to say certain things in emails that they don’t want to get out.”
Because almost everyone has been involved in a digital communication, it’s no wonder emails and other digital sources are being used more as incriminating evidence.
Digital forensics is a relatively new form of evidence, but it is growing more popular throughout the U.S.
“Google has a page called government requests, the transparency report, and they’ve made public all the records and you can look at a map and you can see, for example, in the United States in the past year, there’s been 4,061 data requests,” said Anthony Vance, assistant professor in the Department of Information Systems.
However, before accepting digital evidence, a court will determine if the evidence is relevant, authentic, if it is hearsay and whether a copy is acceptable or the original is required. Courts will also look at time stamps and IP addresses to pinpoint where an email came from.
“I think people think they’re ephemeral, that emails don’t really last, but they’re preserved,” Vance said. “They often are stored by corporations. Courts need to have authorization that is subpoenaed to gain access to those emails, but [digital evidence] is a trend and it’s a huge upward trend right now.”
Digital evidence has risen in popularity, perhaps because most people carry around digital records with them constantly.
“Our cell phones can track us wherever we go, and police officers can use that to locate you,” Vance said. “You basically have a tracker on you all the time. It’s not just our emails that can be used as digital evidence. Our telephone communications can be captured and recorded, text messages can be subpoenaed and text messages remain on the phone even after they’re deleted.”
The goal of computer forensics is to explain the current state of a digital artifact. These can include a computer system, storage medium, an electronic document or even a sequence of packets moving over a computer network.
Many businesses exist solely for the purpose of identifying, collecting, preserving and analyzing legal evidence from digital media. Because of this, Vance suggests people not use their personal email for work.
Apart from court subpoenaed access to digital evidence, computer hackers are capable of gaining access to digital communications.
“Emails can be seen by almost any juvenile hacker,” said Dale Rowe, assistant professor in the BYU school of technology. “That means the first thing people need to be aware of is that anything they send via email is encrypted and it is viewable across the entire chain. It’s like writing a letter on a piece of paper for a friend and then just giving it someone to pass on to your fried. Anyone can look at it along the way to that friend.”
Rowe said there are several dangers involved with hackers gaining access to personal emails, the biggest being identity theft.
“If you’ve got bank credentials in emails or anything like that, people can get information about you,” he said. “Your date of birth and the last four of your social security number can get people access to bank accounts in the U.S. Any communication that has sensitive information like that needs to be communicated preferably in person.”
Encrypting a file is a good way to protect sensitive information from hackers, but it is not fool proof.
“People just assume it’s a short message, it’ll go straight to the person, it shouldn’t matter, but you’ve really got to be able to trust every system that email is going through, and unless you have that you shouldn’t do it,” Rowe said.