Friday, June 11, 2010

The importance of your "private" email address

If you go back a few short decades, email addresses were things used by only a select few academics.

What point was their in having an email address when there was no ubiquitous communications network to transfer your messages anyway?

These days of course, everyone has at least one email address and usually several.

If you're smart you have public and private addresses. The public ones you use whenever you might expect them to be published or fall into the hands of spammers. Typically these are with web-based services such as GMail, Hotmail or Yahoo. Who cares if their servers are flooded with spam anyway?

Your private address(es) however, are things that should be guarded with much more care.

Private email addresses must be chosen carefully, so as to ensure their longevity and to avoid coinciding with guesses made by spammers. These addresses are best associated with your own domain name rather than your ISP or other domains that are beyond your control.

Many a Net-user has found themselves "disconnected" from regular contacts after an ISP folds or a minor web-based service has gone belly-up without warning -- effectively taking all the email addresses that depended on their domain name with them.

If you must use a web-based service for your "private" email addresses it's always a good idea to use cryptic or non-obvious names. Opting for an obvious name such as bob23@gmail.com will net you a mountain of spam almost immediately, as will john666@hotmail.com -- even if those addresses are available. Make your private email address long and cryptic. fftw99skvm.ppj@... is a good example, nobody's going to guess that one!

Now imagine you've gone to all the trouble of creating and protecting a nice "private" email address. The benefits are manifold...

Your intray is devoid of spam and you only get messages from people you consider to be important. What's more, you don't have to worry about genuinely important messages getting caught up in your spam filters, because you won't need spam filters.

Many important people (such as the rich and famous) rely on their private email addresses being kept secret. Without that secrecy, email would be virtually useless to them -- constantly clogged with messages from people they don't know and don't want to know.

Now imagine how you'd feel if, despite your careful planning and best efforts, that secret/private email address fell into the hands of hackers and became part of goodness knows how many spam-mailing lists.

Well spare a thought for iPad users in the USA who encountered exactly this problem last week when a stuff-up at US mobile provider AT&T saw a huge number of email addresses harvested by spammers.

How did they do it?

Well they discovered that by submitting the ID number of an iPad through a carefuly created script, the telco's system returned the email address associated with that iPad.

Amongst those who lost their highly valued "private" email addresses to spammers were the likes of film producers, Microsoft and Apple executives, publishers, high-ranking military officers and a whole host of others who'd rather not be named.

Right now, these folk are facing a tsunami of spam directed at those previously secret email addresses and chances are that they're having to create new addresses and advising all those affected about the change. It's a hugely expensive and annoying situation to be in.

If this proves anything, it shows that the more complex and sophisticated our technology becomes, the more fragile it can also be. Years of time and effort spent carefully protecting an email address from spam can be negated in the few milliseconds it takes for hackers to exploit a vulnerability in that complex technology.

Perhaps it also shows that being an early adopter is not without its risks.

In the meantime, it might pay to start creating a backup "private" email address, for when the inevitable happens.

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