An Ethics of Email?

I am wondering if readers can recommend any interesting ethical discussions of the uses to which email can be put. I have in mind particularly the use of the "blind carbon copy" (or "BCC") function that is included in most email software. I first became aware of the ethical dubiousness of the BCC when I was BCC'd several years ago on a personnel matter among university administrators, with reference to a fellow professor. To be frank, I was honored to be "let in" on the matter and felt the secret "importance" that I was likely intended to feel about it all. (Yes, it typically takes very little in academic life to either wound or elevate the ego. There are many aphorisms about this.) I began using BCC occasionally myself.

It turns out that this feeling of special acknowledgement through the BCC-experience started to fade over time, especially as I began to realize that it was likely that others were being BCC'd on emails to me. (This was confirmed more than once when a colleague would say something to me reflecting the contents of what I had thought was a singular and confidential email.) I started to imagine the totality of the email experience as a potential BCC.


It is clear to me that in the economies of virtual status, BCCs play a special role. I suspect that someone has invented software that allows one to decode whether one has been BCC'd, and as interesting as it would be to see the results, it's probably better if I did not. (On a related note, on one email system at a university where I taught, we could see when our emails were "opened" by the recipient, or if they were "forwarded" -- and it took a savvy colleague to show me how to trick that system so it would not actually reveal to colleagues or anyone else when we had opened emails sent to us.)

There is also the related issue of people carbon-copying ("CCing") others on a reply to you, in a message which was never intended to be seen by anyone other than the original recipient.

These are, in some ways, very small matters, to be sure. But they seem to me to go to the heart of the ethics of how one conducts one's everyday work life in our culture--no small matter. Especially for those who must, like me, spend about an hour a day on email. I know many spend much more.

There are some basic lessons here: only write over work email what you wouldn't mind lawyers reading; consider that what you write might sit for months or years in someone's account, to be parsed later beyond your expectations. But what about the ethics of the BCC or the CC? Some of us in academic life need some guidance.

Tom Beaudoin

Hastings-on-Hudson, New York, United States

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
James O'Brien
8 years 4 months ago
Hi Tom,
Good stuff, I enjoy your posts at Rock and Theology, thanks.
I feel that BCC'ing a private email to other people is unethical. Just did a search and came up with this exploration of email related ethical issues:
This is an important discussion to be having, one people can be passionate about too.
Peace, James
Beth Cioffoletti
8 years 4 months ago
I appreciate the BCC function when I need to get a message to a lot of people, yet I do not feel I have the right to share those email addresses with everyone.
Some people rightly protect their email addresses, and give them to you assuming you will not share it with others.
It takes a lot of time to send the same email, separately, to 10 different people.  The BCC will send just 1 email to all 10 people, but they will not see each others' addresses.  To be perfectly ethical, one should indicate (by name, not email) in the email the persons who are getting the email.
One thing that really annoys me are the "jokes" that are sent to hundreds of people, and then forwarded again and again.  There on that email are hundreds of email addresses.  Any Tom Dick or Harry could pick up those email addresses and add them to a SCAM mail database, which I DO NOT want to be on.  In this case, I would have appreciated if the joke sender would have taken the time to erase the forwarded email addresses and then used the BCC to distribute the joke.
Jerry Wonderly
8 years 4 months ago
Occasionally, I am tempted to send a mass marketing email to several of my customers announcing a new set of altar cards that we have designed and just released. But, so far, I have managed to resist that temptation because I loathe anything that remotely appears as spam and I don't feel that it is proper to display my customers' email addresses to each other. If I used BCC, the email would be too generic sounding and would be deceptive. So, I just don't write my customers unless it is specifically for them.


Don't miss the best from America

Sign up for our Newsletter to get the Jesuit perspective on news, faith and culture.

The latest from america

A woman reacts to Pope Francis' final words during the closing Mass of the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia in this 2015 file photo. The pope will attend the next W.M.F., to be held Aug. 21-26 in Dublin. (CNS photo/Brian Snyder, Reuters) 
Pope Francis will attend the ninth World Meeting of Families on August 25 and 26, making him the second pontiff to visit Ireland.
Gerard O’ConnellMarch 21, 2018
The U.N. report documents cases of extrajudicial murders committed by police, illegal house raids and threats and harassment against journalists and social and political activists in Honduras.
Jackie McVicarMarch 20, 2018
An employee wrapped in a blanket talks to a police officer after she was evacuated at a FedEx distribution center where a package exploded on March 20, 2018, in Schertz, Texas. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)
In their joint statement, the Texas bishops echoed Chief Manley’s appeal to the community. “We ask all people in our dioceses to remain vigilant, and to pray and work for peace,” the bishops said.
Paul StinsonMarch 20, 2018
The challenge of finding families for homeless youth and for those in group shelters is creating the latest flashpoint over competing civil rights claims. (iStock/bodnarchuk)
Catholic Social Services refuses to place foster children in homes headed by same-sex couples; the city of Philadelphia says this policy violates a nondiscrimination law.