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CNN Today

HTML E-Mails Can Compromise Privacy

Aired February 5, 2001 - 4:39 p.m. ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

JOIE CHEN, CNN ANCHOR: OK, here is something that may surprise you. On the other hand, it may not. The e-mails that come to you may not be as private as you might think.

CNN's technology correspondent Rick Lockridge is in our newsroom at the Big Board computer to explain to those of us who are too dumb to understand this.

Rick, very slowly explain to us what you're talking about here.

RICK LOCKRIDGE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Oh, you're far too modest. I've talked to you about this.

HTML mail is what we're talking about, and usually when you get HTML mail, which is right behind me here, it's span. For example, I never signed up to get Car (UNINTELLIGIBLE) on the Web. Somehow they got my name. I'm not exactly Mr. Goodwrench, but they send it to me. But the reason that marketers like HTML mail is because it's got lots of graphics, it can do animations and so forth.

However, it's not always like that. This is another HTML mail I received. You can see it's only text. They can be a bit sneaky about it.

And if you go behind the scenes and look at the code that's behind an HTML mail, you'll see dozens of instructions. Look at all the instructions it takes to build that car e-mail I showed you.

It says, you know, where do we put the graphics, where do we put the text, and it would pretty easy for a programmer to sneak into all these instructions an instruction to follow Joie Chen's e-mail and find out if she's forwarding it so somebody, if she opened it, if she had any messages of her own.

So, that's really what we're talking about today, that kind of snooping. If you wanted to do that on your own, you could go to a commercial site like iTraceYou -- how do you like that name, iTraceYou.com? -- and sign up for their commercial service, which would enable you to send your e-mail and know when it was read by the recipient.

However, on the other hand, if you don't want people snooping around in your e-mail, there is a site that you can go to, and it is PrivacyFoundation.org. That's PrivacyFoundation -- one word -- dot.org, and there you'll find some instructions on how you can disable that sort of HTML mail in your mailbox so that you won't get the graphics anymore, Joie, but you will still get the contents. It just won't be as pretty.

CHEN: All right. But is it the content of what is in my e-mails if I send them to somebody else or if somebody sends something to me, or is this just where I sent or who sent something to me?

LOCKRIDGE: Well, if you were to add something to what you sent -- comments, for example -- say you were conducting your salary negotiations via HTML mail -- you probably wouldn't -- but if you did, they could find out what your -- your lowest offer that you would take would be. And would be a bad thing to have happen in business negotiations. So any comments you would add might be visible to somebody who was snooping on you.

CHEN: Well, we wouldn't like that to happen, and is this true on all systems, I mean, any kind of e-mail service?

LOCKRIDGE: No, the popular ones like Microsoft Outlook, for example, and Netscape's mail programs, those are vulnerable. However, programs used by millions of users, such as AOL Mail and also Hotmail -- Web-based mail, Hotmail -- are not known to be vulnerable at this time.

CHEN: All right, Rick Lockridge, our technology correspondent explaining to those of us. It took a little time to get that through my head, Rick. Thanks a lot.

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