How to: Track an e-mail

Think you've trashed them? Well — surprise! — think again

Drafting an e-mail from a corporate account? Think of it as if you're writing on company letterhead: a formal business document–and one that is photocopied and filed many times over. And the fact is, once you send an e-mail, you have no control over who might see it. Before an e-mail ever gets to its recipient, multiple copies are made–and once it arrives, it might go anywhere. A very informative footprint is left on desktop and server hard drives along the way. So practise safe e-mail: think before you send.

1. An employee types an e-mail and hits Send. A copy is often maintained on the employee's desktop computer.

2. The message travels to the company's e-mail server before it is sent on. A copy is cached– possibly for many months–as set by corporate policy.

3. The server's cached files are backed up, usually on tape, where a copy of the e-mail is preserved. Although tape archives are more difficult to search, they are also never completely overwritten or deleted.

4. The e-mail is sent from the company server to the Internet, and directed to the recipient. Along the way, the e-mail may go through ISP servers where there's a small risk that a footprint or copy of the e-mail may remain, thanks to anti-spam or anti-virus programs' queues.

5. The e-mail arrives at the recipient's e-mail server; a copy is kept according to IT policy.

6. Again, a copy of the e-mail is backed up, either on tape, or possibly by an automated archiving system on a separate in-house server. It could also be outsourced to a third-party server to be stored for up to seven years.

7. The e-mail is delivered to the recipient. Unlimited copies may be saved or forwarded elsewhere.