The fallacy of automatic confidentiality statements in company email

It is a standard measure taken by all organisations big and small around the world, but having confidentiality statements attached to outgoing emails by default may in fact be “dangerous”, according to Mark Cenite, Acting Division Head of Communication Research at the Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information (SCI) in Singapore.

Cenite, who holds a Juris Doctor degree in Law from Stanford University, said that “such blanket statements may be rendered redundant” on the grounds that it had also previously been attached to emails that contain non-confidential and trivial information.

“Legally, since the statement appears on every single email, it loses its function to indicate and classify which messages are truly confidential and is of little help,” he said.

According to Cenite, who teaches the fundamentals of confidentiality law to SCI undergraduates, maximum legal protection for sensitive information in emails can only be obtained when senders manually and explicitly indicate the confidential nature of the email.

This can be as simple as typing the word ‘CONFIDENTIAL’ at the beginning of the confidential message.

The lack of utility of the blanket statement, Cenite said, could also “give a false sense of security to people who are communicating confidential information”.

Despite the limited legal value of the measure, the Nanyang Technological University (NTU) in Singapore had decided to automatically attach confidentiality statements for all outbound staff and faculty emails from October 6 onwards.

Chew Kheng Chuan, Chief University Advancement Officer of NTU, said the “incorporation of confidentiality statements into emails will remind faculty, staff and recipients the basic privacy expectations that are part of accepted best practices.”

To this, Cenite said: “(The school) is following a norm but that might not be very helpful.”

He proposed a way to better protect the confidentiality of emails.

Cenite said: “Rather than pursuing the blanket approach, I would suggest that they (the school) educate faculty and staff on the basics of confidentiality or give them tips on how to distinguish confidential information.

“It is not a very difficult thing for any organisation to do,” he said.

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  Max wrote @

L.A. Confidential


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