‘Private and Confidential’: what do you expect?

‘Private and Confidential’: what do you expect?

The email had the subject line ‘Confidential Correspondence’. The body said ‘Please find attached a confidential letter addressing the issues you have raised.’ And the letter, before the greeting, said PRIVATE AND CONFIDENTIAL.   I had no doubt that he was telling me that the contents were…confidential.   But what does that mean?

When emailing I will sometimes pick ‘Confidential’ in the ‘Sensitivity’ settings in Outlook, thinking that the recipient would then, ethically at least, be unable to forward or show the email to anybody else. But now that the boot was on the other foot I didn’t like it, especially as I had taken up the ‘issues’ with him, informally at least, on behalf of a sizeable number of other people.

Pre-email and with the decline in formal correspondence, it was not uncommon to receive a letter with ‘Private and Confidential’ above our address on the envelope. Conventionally this has always meant that the letter should only be opened by us personally, or with our permission.   So with the advent of email why should this be any different?

It isn’t.

The fact is that it takes more than saying something is ‘confidential’ to make it illegal for you to share the information with others. Unwise maybe, but not automatically illegal. This is because there’s no agreement between you and the sender that you will keep the information to yourself, and certain conditions must be present before you can be had for breach of confidence.

‘Private’, too, can be meant in two ways. If it is used in the sense of personal information about you, the addressee, then you are free to share it as much as you like. If it is meant in the less likely sense of personal information about the sender, then in Australia the privacy laws are no protection.

I’m off to forward an email. (I can show you my legal advice if you want to do the same. Send me a ‘Private and Confidential’ email.)

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