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E-Mail Stink Proves Web's Power
By Charles Mandel
Story location: http://www.wired.com/news/privacy/0,1848,57960,00.html
02:00 AM Mar. 10, 2003 PT
VANCOUVER, British Columbia -- A short but wicked e-mail message has churned the already choppy water in a fight between the aquaculture industry and environmentalists here. The incident created a mini public-relations debacle for the e-mail sender's employer, the environmental nonprofit David Suzuki Foundation.
Lynn Hunter, an aquaculture specialist for the foundation, sent an e-mail in mid-February urging recipients to fax fish-farm companies to advise them of a product boycott over the issue of sea lice.
"Tormenting fish farmers is fun -- it really, really is,'' Hunter wrote, adding, "Aren't I sweet?"
Hunter sent the e-mail to two private listservs. It was promptly leaked, outraging the aquaculture industry.
"It was her own words confirming that they think it's pretty funny to harass and torment the fish farmers, and that this is all a game,'' said Laurie Jensen, president of the Society for the Positive Awareness of Aquaculture and vice president of a fish-farm technology company in Campbell River, British Columbia.
Jensen said she was surprised an industry leader like Hunter expressed her thoughts about the debate so casually via e-mail. "She didn't care what she said. She didn't care about us. She didn't care about anything. She was playing a game."
David Hocking, communications director with the Suzuki Foundation, said Hunter sent a private e-mail containing language that expressed frustration. After the leak, it drew e-mail replies from several individuals who wanted to know if Hunter's message represented the way the foundation carried out its work. "Our answer is 'No,''' Hocking said.
Hunter later sent a one-line apology to the Salmon Farmers Association. She is on vacation and could not be reached for comment for this story.
Hocking said he discussed the incident with all foundation staff, cautioning them about inappropriate use of e-mail and warning them not to let their emotions get out of hand.
"This issue has become very emotional here in B.C.," Hocking said, "We're looking at a responsible solution for the problems, and it is not our job to get ourselves so fired up about something that we cross a line into personal acrimony."
The foundation and the aquaculture industry are engaged in a war of words over the interpretation of research into sea lice that breed on fish farms and their impact on salmon runs in northern British Columbia's Broughton Archipelago.
Sea lice attach to salmon, insert themselves into the skin of the fish and ultimately kill them. The Suzuki Foundation maintains that infestations of sea lice from fish farms are responsible for killing millions of young wild salmon.
Farmed salmon are British Columbia's largest agricultural export item, according to Jenson, accounting for 15 percent of the province's total agricultural production and contributing over $600 million to the economy.
Hunter is not the only one to get caught with her finger on the Send button.
Pulitzer Prize-winning Newsday reporter Laurie Garrett was subjected to intense scrutiny after her gushing e-mail about the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, ended up all over the Web.
Sreenath Sreenivasan, an associate professor at Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism, says such leaks are becoming more commonplace. For professionals especially, but even for casual messages between friends, he said it's smart to observe this rule:
"After you write an e-mail but before you hit Send, presume you will read this on the front page of the newspaper," he said. "If you're not comfortable with it being seen on the front page of your newspaper, then don't send it under any circumstances."
As for encrypting your e-mail, Sreenivasan said the problem with leaked messages is very rarely that the e-mail has been intercepted in transit. More often, the leaks happen when a friend or colleague forwards a message to someone else, and so on.
"For most regular people, the only encryption you need is your own mental filter, not to hit Send. That's the only thing that works."