Increasingly, I am receiving emails and texts that have been misaddressed and sent to me by mistake. Do I have an ethical duty not to read them? How about a duty to delete them? What if I see my name mentioned in the text of the email? Is it then ethical to read the email? Should I tell the sender that I received his/her email by mistake?
—Leslie, Santa Barbara
Street Ethics responds:
You’ve got mail, but apparently it’s not yours. What is the ethical thing to do? First, there are no laws that I know of that prohibit you from reading a wrongly addressed email or text that pops up on your computer, smartphone, or any one the dozens devices that receive email or text.
When, there are no laws that apply, you have a true ethical dilemma.
You certainly are not alone when it comes to the sending or receiving misdirected emails. With the tens of millions of emails and texts sent every day, I would assume many are sent to the wrong person. I wish I could say that I have never pushed the send button, only to immediately be seized by panic when I realize that my message is flying through cyberspace to the wrong person.
When you receive a message not intended for you, I don’t think there is anything unethical about reading the message until you establish that it really isn’t intended for you.
After all, it came to you, and it may take you a sentence or two to realize the communication between, say Warren Buffett and his partners, was not intended for you. If it does happen to be from Warren Buffett, please forward the email to me (not serious here). Once you have established the message is not for you, I think the ethical approach would be to stop reading it. It’s different if your name is somewhere in the body of the message. While the message may not be for you, it might be about you. If this were the case, I would think you have little or no ethical duty not to read the message. It would be just like overhearing a conversation about you but not intended for your ears.
In the days before instant written communication, if a letter was delivered to our mailbox and we opened it reasonably thinking we were the intended recipient, most of us would stop reading once we realized it was not intended for us. Why should we treat an email or text differently?
The same for a phone call. Would we continue to listen to a live or recorded message meant for someone else once we recognized that we were not the intended recipient? I would hope not.
Should you alert the sender of the misdirected email or text? If you have the time and ability to do so, I would say yes. But again, not an ethical duty; but then again, wouldn’t you like to know if you had done the same thing?
There are at least two ethical principles (not laws or rules) to consider when making a decision about the misdirected message you received. First, the Golden Rule would apply. If you do not want someone to read your private mail, immediately push the delete key.
The second ethical principle is that of a reasonable expectation to the “right of privacy.” This should not be confused with constitutional “rights of privacy” that deal with a wide variety of issues guarding our privacy primarily from government intrusion, and that is being hotly debated in the courts.
If you read messages not intended for you, you have impinged upon someone else’s basic right to privacy. If at all possible, even if the message landed in your computer, you should avoid being a privacy pirate.
And besides who has the time to read all the emails that are actually meant for us? Not me.
Benjamin Bycel is an attorney and writer. He was the founding executive director of the Los Angeles Ethics Commission and of the newly reconstituted Connecticut Ethics office. He serves as an expert witness in cases dealing with political and legal ethics.