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03/15/05 4:00pm

Beware: E-mail can be a minefield.

Behold what Tom Ryan, an information technology director at his Southern California high-tech firm, discovered when he downloaded software to analyze a week's worth of employee e-mail.

He found employees swapping pornography, racist jokes, even employees running their private businesses on company time and resources.

But worse yet, "we found that one of our managers in a position of responsibility sent out a resume which detailed work he had done on top-secret, highly competitive intellectual property projects we were working on," said Ryan, who asked that his company not be identified for confidentiality reasons.

"It took all of us in the room to restrain our CEO from walking out the door to fire this person right then and there. It absolutely terrified us what goes on every day."

Last week, Boeing Co. Chief Executive Officer Harry Stonecipher was booted from his job after an anonymous tipster notified board executives of racy e-mails that the chief executive was sending his lover at the company.

What is it about e-mailing that leads so many down the same wayward path?

Its irresistibility, said Kenneth Morgen, president of the Baltimore Psychological Association, lies in its curious combination of physical distance and emotional immediacy.

"The person they are writing is not in front of them," Morgen said, but at the same time the correspondence is delivered and often read within minutes.

Alas, sometimes the reader is not the intended recipient.

"It's the worst thing you can do," said Dustin Plantholt, an employee benefits adviser in Towson. "I sent an e-mail to a good friend of mine at work asking her to go out for drinks, and I accidentally sent it to a client in Baltimore. The client sent me an e-mail back that said, 'I'm married.'"

In September, Frank P. Quattrone, an investment banker to the 1990s technology boom, received an 18-month prison sentence for obstructing justice. He had sent an e-mail message to colleagues urging them to "clean up" their computer files during a federal investigation.

Star research analyst Jack Grubman settled civil charges for $15 million and accepted a lifetime ban from Wall Street in 2003 after his brazen e-mails surfaced, documenting how he had pushed stock in return for a recommendation from CitiGroup Inc. CEO Sanford Weill that Grubman's children be admitted to the exclusive 92nd Street Y preschool in Manhattan.

E-mails contributed to President Bill Clinton's impeachment. Intern Monica Lewinsky's e-mails to friends about the Oval Office affair were among the documents seized by prosecutor Kenneth Starr to make his case.

Despite evidence to the contrary, no one thinks he will be the one humiliated - or fired or charged or sued - because of an e-mail.

People may display an amazing ability to delete from their minds tales of supposedly private e-mails that were splashed across front pages or forwarded throughout cyberspace. But computer desktops and corporate mainframes don't have the same lapses of memory. The delete key means nothing when it comes to e-mail.

In the high-tech world of communications, e-mail is forever.

"E-mail is not a confidential communication system," said Donald A. Rea, attorney and co-chairman of the electronic discovery practice group at the law firm Gordon, Feinblatt, Rothman, Hoffberger & Hollander LLC. "Part of the problem is because it's so anonymous. With a telephone conversation, you're speaking to a human being, so you have that connection. With a letter, there's a certain amount of formality to that.

"With e-mail, you're sitting there by yourself with your door closed, maybe at 2 o'clock in the morning," Rea said. "You hit the button and it's gone. People say things in e-mail they would never say in person. It just creates these records that are remarkable. And more and more, litigation and depositions have focused almost entirely on e-mails in some cases."

When companies or organizations receive e-mail subpoenas, they usually call an e-mail management firm such as Waterford Technologies, based in California.

Using software programs, such firms can scan a company's e-mail database looking for patterns such as inappropriate language or images, frequent communication among individuals or numerous large attachments. They can pull text from any e-mail sent or received. They can monitor any e-mail sent on a company account or free account such as Hotmail, Yahoo or EarthLink.

They can reach into backup files and find an e-mail that was deleted five years ago.

Many workers don't realize it, but about 60 percent of companies monitor external employee e-mail these days. About 20 percent also monitor internal e-mail, according to the ePolicy Institute survey.

Anthony Sanchez, vice president of marketing at Waterford - who has seen it all, from e-mail that's merely interesting to e-mail that's criminal - said people should step away from the send button.

"People need to realize that once it's written and sent, it's a permanent record for all time of human history," Sanchez said. "Whatever you write, make sure you don't mind your mom reading it, because it will always be there, somewhere, for someone to possibly read forever and ever and ever."

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