Wednesday, March 25, 2009


Hiding addresses in email messages

A friend of mine sent a note to me yesterday, with a question about email. It seems that he’d sent some “amusing” thing to a bunch of people and... well, let’s let him tell it.

Here’s what my friend said, somewhat edited:

Dear Dr Email,I sent a mailing to my “cats” email group within the last couple of days, in which — and I’m usually very careful about not making this mistake — I forgot to use BCC, and exposed all their email addresses to each other. One of them subsequently sent something to at least one of the others, who commented on the exposure to me.

It’s an easy mistake to make, and it seems like an obvious thing, but I’ve not seen anything about any email software with an option to warn you if you’re sending To: more than a specific number of people. 10 would be a good default; some people would want more or fewer. That would be useful.

Dr Email, do you have any comments on such an option?

— Bill the Cat        

Dr Email agrees that such an option would be very useful, though he himself would turn it off. He vaguely remembers seeing something like it before, but perhaps that was in some utopian dream, and not in any actual, extant email client.

And Bill is certainly right about being careful about this: one should never send email to a group of people who don’t know each other, without hiding their email addresses (unless, of course, one is intentionally introducing them, for legitimate reasons). The way to do this is to put the email addresses in the BCC field, rather than in To or CC. If your email program doesn’t give you a way to do this, stop using it and get another.

Dr Email would turn Bill’s suggested option off, because the last time he sent email to more than ten people and didn’t want them to see each other’s addresses was when he recently told people he’d been laid off and has a new email address, and the time before that was, like, never.

You see, when Dr Email sends mail to a bunch of people, it’s as part of a conversation that they’re all participating in. They all know each other’s email addresses already, or should, and they’re expected to be able to reply to the whole list, continuing the conversation.

When Dr Email does send “funny” or “interesting” things to folks, he sends them as individual messages to one, or two, or a few friends, usually with some personalized greeting on each. Because he doesn’t appreciate nor have the time to read arbitrary mass-mailings, even from the closest of friends, he doesn’t think to send them himself. He might say, relevant to this instance, that he avoids sending cat shit to people.

Perhaps Bill the Cat should set up a proper mailing list, to which people could subscribe — and unsubscribe. That would avoid the problem entirely, and could, should Bill want to allow it, permit others to post their cute cat stories as well. Or Bill could join a Google or Yahoo! or Facebook group for cat lovers, and encourage those in his cat group to do so as well.

Alternatively (or in addition), he could write his own blog, including all the silly cat stuff he likes. His cat friends could read it at their leisure, safe and anonymous, all.


May said...

I am just a stranger, not a friend. May I ask Dr Email a question, too?

The question is: is it possible to encrypt yahoo e-mails?

Barry Leiba said...

Yes, you... um... may.

It's not possible with the free version of Y!'s webmail. Their paid "Mail Plus" service allows you to use other email clients (such as Thunderbird and Outlook) with their service, and those programs will let you use encryption and digital signatures.

I don't know whether or not the Mail Plus webmail also has any way to use encryption.

May said...

Thank you, Barry.

No, I do not have a paid service, therefore I'll have to be careful when I write to my friends. Even discussing work issues can be dangerous.

D. said...

I am a paying customer with Y!, and without using another email client, there is no way for me to encrypt or to send to "undisclosed recipients". I deal with this by sending everything to myself, and putting everyone else in the Bcc line.