Things you really need to know about e-mail

// March 29th, 2008 // Rambling

Preface: This message was originally addressed to users at the university where I work. As such, some of the content may be a little specific in areas, but not overly so. It turns out that this got passed around by a lot of people and I ended up hearing from people all over the place saying that someone had passed it on to them and that they’d gotten a lot from it. So I’m sharing it here on my blog, as well, with this in mind. If others read it and find it helpful, that’s great.
 But please keep in mind that this was written with only our customers in mind… OK? – Maggie


 This is a rather lengthy little essay, but one I hope you’ll all take the time to read.It pertains not just to our e-mail, but to e-mail as a whole.


Things you really need to know about e-mail

* E-mail is insecure.
We try to provide as much security as is possible by encrypting the connection between you and our mail server at all times so that so called ‘man in the middle’ attacks on you are thwarted, but once the mail leaves our server, it’s out of our hands. Please keep this in mind if you find yourself needing to share confidential or classified information. Unless the information contained in the message is encrypted, there’s no way to say how secure it is once it leaves our mail server. There is likely someone on the other end that could, if they were so inclined, intercept and read your message and no one would be the wiser. I could, were it not morally repugnant to me, do so if the urge hit me. So keep this in mind and try to avoid situations where you might compromise the security or confidentiality of someone.

* E-mail is ‘broken’.

The thing we know as e-mail is still very much based on technology that is, in Internet time, quite old. It’s based on a system developed around 1976 and brought on to the Internet around 1982. The inherent roadblock to really ‘fixing’ e-mail is that, unless and until everyone agrees to stop using it all at once and adopt something else en masse, it’s not going away. So we patch it up, shore it up, tack things on to try to make it more secure or robust. But the volume of messaging we exchange, the ways we use it as a virtual file folder and the advent of spoofing, spam and phishing… these are things that the creators of e-mail never envisioned for their simple messaging system. And e-mail is horribly susceptible to it all.

* E-mail gets delayed.
We’ve all sort of gotten used to the idea that e-mail should be nearly instantaneous. But delays happen and are often unavoidable. Messages often go through more than one node on the route to you (or vice-versa). Blackberrys (especially), forwards, spam filtering, misconfigured servers, network outages, etc. All of these have the potential to slow down an e-mail. Unlike a telephone or fax which gives you a point-to-point connection directly with your intended, e-mail is a lot like postal mail. It leaves your hands and has a ‘good chance’ of getting to its intended.

* E-mail disappears
It happens. There are numerous reasons why it might happen and often there’s no easy way to find out which it was in a particular case. It doesn’t happen a lot, but it happens. So if the message or its contents are really important, follow up. The chances that in internal mail will be lost are very slim, but once the message leaves here or before it arrives, there are numerous things that can go wrong and cause your message to vanish. We’ve seen evidence of this with (but no confession by) some consumer cable and DSL internet providers. An attachment or key phrase might cause them to reject the message (in or out) but no notification is given to the sender or receiver. I say all this not to frighten anyone, but to set expectations accordingly. It’s easy to forget how fragile a medium e-mail is when things are going well.

* Spam is everybody’s problem
You may have, for instance, noticed that you can’t attach an executable file to an e-mail. This is necessary as passing around executable files is the quickest way to spread viruses, worms and trojans. If all of us, the good guys, agree not to do it, then we can make an assumption that anyone who continues to is up to no good. Over time the bad guys, so to speak, have used various file types to try and trick people (.eml, .scr, etc.) so we block them incoming and outgoing. The more mundane and day-to-day file types that people routinely share, we have to ignore, but if you need to share a file and it won’t seem to send, chances are you should probably try compressing it into an archive (Zip, Tar, whatever works best for you and your receiver) before sending it. Our system will always let you know why it has rejected something (we test each server that tries to connect, as well as key phrase searches and attachment rules), so have a look at the message you receive and proceed accordingly. Any legitimate sender whose gets a bounce when trying to send mail in to our system will also receive a message with a reason as to why it was bounced so that they may fix the problem on their end.

And finally, some advice:

Always check your Junk mail folder. Junk mail filters such as those used by your e-mail client are brilliant bits of programming. But they’re not perfect and never will be. You should periodically check to make sure that nothing legitimate has been flagged as spam. If so, mark it as not spam (varies by e-mail program) and move it back to your inbox or folders.

Never respond to suspicious e-mails. Flag them as junk and move on. If you’re unsure about a particular message, ask us. Responding to spam, phishing attempts (e-mails that try to entice you to sign in to a fake Paypal site or a fake banking site, messages promising lottery winnings, etc) and the like won’t stop them. Replies will either go nowhere, be ignored or, worst of all, prove to the spammer that you’re paying attention and just bring you more spam.

Don’t assume critical or time sensitive information will reach its destination in time. There’s no guarantee it will arrive at all. Always follow up on things that are critical. Once something has been flung out into the cloud (the Internet), there’s not way to know what will happen to it.

Clean up your inbox and folders as best you can. As people keep more and more e-mail, it becomes more and more difficult to manage. In the perfect world where a new sort of e-mail exists, we’d all have highly indexed, quickly searchable, hierarchically organized and taggable repositories of messages and life would be grand. But, instead, we have a very old technology trying to keep up with our very new needs. And in order to avoid catastrophe we need to store all this on a networked share so that it’s backed up. This adds a little more slowness to the mix. So, if your inbox is slow to open, move some of it into folders. There is, indeed, a limit to how much your Inbox can hold after which it will stop accepting more messages (on our server it’s 2 Gigabytes – you can check the size of your inbox and your disk usage here (URL removed) FYI, folders can be larger than 2GB, but the Inbox never can.). Also, If it’s slow to send mail, have a look at your sent messages folder. If it’s grown exceedingly large, it’s going to slow you down as it’s accessed every time a message goes out. If you need to keep sent messages, make a folder (with, say, a date name) and periodically move old sent message in there. And, finally, if it’s slow to search through all your folders… you may just have too much mail. This is where it all starts to go pear shaped. Reduce where you can. Every little bit counts.

I hope this is helpful information. We’re constantly doing what we can to make our system as robust as it possible — and we’re in the planning stages of a new mail server to try to make it even better, this will also include a new webmail system that’s more like the e-mail clients you’re used to – but there is still a lot that is up to the end user, you, to confront.




Please be aware that e-mail is not a secure medium, nor is it 100% reliable. So please

attempt to limit the inclusion of confidential or personal information as much as is feasible.

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