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One Step Ahead
January 15, 2008, Volume 54, No. 17

One Step Ahead

Another tip in a series provided by the Offices of Information Systems & Computing and Audit, Compliance & Privacy.

Electronic Group Mailing Lists: Consider the Privacy Risks

One of the most popular features of e-mail is the ability to send the same message to a group of individuals with a single mouse click.  For example, you can create a group of addresses with your mail program (such as Outlook), give the group a name, or “alias,” and substitute the alias for the underlying address list when sending a message. You can also initiate a list management service, or listserv, which allows you to send messages to list subscribers without entering a series of addresses.   Although such “group emails” can be convenient, there are also several potential privacy risks to consider.

For example, when you send a message to an alias, do you first check to confirm that it is appropriate for everyone on the underlying address list to receive the message? Do you avoid using listserv names and e-mail aliases (as well as subject lines) that could reveal sensitive information if the message is seen by someone other than the intended recipient?  Suppose, for example, that the e-mail alias for your message is “Cancer Support Group”—this in itself could potentially reveal, to office staff or others who inadvertently see the message, that the recipient has a health concern.

You can reduce the risk of revealing confidential information by routinely choosing neutral names for listservs and other e-mail address groups—for example, “student group A” rather than “academic probation group”. (Also, e-mail programs typically allow you to use the “bcc” field to enter the actual recipient addresses; you can enter your own address in the “to” field, keeping the identities of the actual recipients private.) When you initiate a listserv, select options that enable you to control who can see and use the subscriber list. 

For further information about e-mail group mailing lists at Penn see www.upenn.edu/computing/list/.


To receive weekly OneStepAhead  tips via email, send email to listserv@lists.upenn.edu with the following text in the body of the message:  sub one-step-ahead <your name>.

For additional tips, see the One Step Ahead link on the Information Security website: www.upenn.edu/computing/security/.

Almanac - January 15, 2008, Volume 54, No. 17