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Oct 16 2023

The History Of Email and Using It Safely

By Dean Jones, Data Protection Officer

The advent of emails in the early 1970s revolutionised the way we communicate on a global scale, though most people wouldn’t have really interacted with them until the late 1990s. Of course, back in the 1970s emails were very different to what we recognise today. Initially, they began as ways of sending messages through the use of being able to share computer resources, known as time-sharing, and as time went on even files between users at one location. The first use of the ‘@’ symbol was actually in 1971.

Those of a certain age will remember Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan in ‘You’ve Got Mail’ and that may have been most people’s first introduction to the technology. Webmail took off in the mid 1990s, with the biggest providers being AOL and Yahoo. The widespread smartphone revolution of the 2010s allowed emails to evolve into a truly global tool and AOL and Yahoo were replaced by Google, Apple and Microsoft.


Unfortunately, over the years several individuals have fallen victim to the pitfalls of email and some of them have been very embarrassing.

Take the example of Claire McDonald, who in 2000 began to receive up to eleven emails a day from an account at the Pentagon. The contents of these emails included security advice on how the U.K. Government could protect secrets from other countries and how New Zealand planned to defend its seas. Worse still, Claire attempted to notify the British Navy about the leak but they simply ignored her and she continued to receive the emails for six months.

In 2014, Oxford University emailed a list of its 50 worst performing students to an entire academic year of students.

Finally, in 2001, on the day of the September 11th attacks in New York, a special adviser to the Transport Secretary, Jo Moore, emailed colleagues stating that it was a good day to bury bad news. She later lost her job.

Those who use emails daily will have seen some of the common smaller mistakes, perhaps most of us have been guilty of copying the wrong people into an email or hitting reply all when we only meant to send it to one person.


These examples of the dangers around emails highlight how they can easily become a nightmare if you don’t pay attention to who you are sending it to and what you are sending. We all use emails every day and whilst most of them will be harmless, inconsequential ones that we send regularly, some of them will be far more important. Whenever we send an email we should always take the time to be sure we are confident about the contents of our email and its recipients.

It’s also just as vital to consider what emails we are storing, most of us never consider what emails are left in our account, we just read them and move on but those emails don’t go anywhere.

So, some simple lessons to take away about email use in a personal or professional capacity:

  • Check what you are sending and who you are sending it to.
  • Consider what emails you keep and what emails you delete.
  • Think very carefully before including attachments to emails.

If you want to know more about data protection and how to stay safe, visit Dean’s previous blogs – Overview of UK Data Protection Rights and Navigating The Seas of The World Wide Web.

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