Email is Permanent

Matthew Tanin, a fund manager at Bear Stearns, has learned an important lesson about email: It is, for all practical purposes, permanent.

It is easy to think of email as a conversation. You say something and get a reply back and both parties hit delete and it is gone. However, in reality, much of the email you send is stored permanently somewhere–especially when you are dealing with corporate mail servers. If you send a message out, it will go into your sent items and will usually be backed up on your local mail server. Even if you delete the email from your sent items, it is likely to be merely “flagged” for deletion and still backed up.

When it gets to the other end, it is probably going to be backed up by your recipient’s IT department. In large organizations it may be backed up in a few more places along the way.

It is now standard practice to subpoena email records as part of a court case. This is what is happening to Mr. Tanin. He emailed someone saying that certain bonds were “toast”, but at an investor meeting, he told people he was “comfortable” with the investments.

Other money managers have had similar problems. Here are some of the emails that have turned up in court cases:

I can’t believe what a piece of sh– that thing is

–Henrey Blodget from Merril Lynch

Henry was referring to a company to which he inexplicably gave a “buy” rating.

Jack Grubman referred to executives at a company as “pigs” and then encouraged investors to buy stock in the company without mentioning the barnyard leadership team.

It isn’t just email that can turn up. The text messages from SkyTel were subpoenaed for Detroit’s mayor and led to the revelation that he was having an embarrassing affair which he had denied under oath.

In many cases emails and other forms of electronic communication are even more permanent than something written out on paper because of the multiple points of backup. If you are dealing with something that could come back to bite you later, pick up the phone, or better yet, go talk in person, but avoid email.

This advice isn’t meant to tell you how to hide things that are illegal. There are many email conversations that are perfectly legal that you still wouldn’t want to have showing up in a courtroom or made public.

(This is republished from July of 2008. The importance of understanding how permanent electronic communications can be is more important now than ever.)


  1. says

    Well put Mark. It is true that email sent often exists in multiple places. As well email travels across the Internet in plain text, unless encrypted. For those emails that must be sent containing confidential information it is recommended to encrypt the messages with PKI or PGP encryption.

  2. says

    Great points, Mark, and I’m glad that you reposted this nugget of information, as it’s as valuable now as it was four years ago. There’s also much to be said for having face:face discussions with folks. These days many of us just sit at our command center/desk and fire off emails when going and interacting with folks might be the better approach, both for increasing productivity and boosting morale. With all these digital tools, it’s important to consider when the analog equivalent might have a better outcome.

  3. Paul - Buffalo says

    Great Article – My rule of thumb is to ask myself; do I want a paper copy of what I’m saying floating around “out there”? Boy, has that caused me to hit delete MANY times! ; )

  4. j d says

    ANY thing in google is forever possibly! any text etc… all google voice as well, all saved by google
    and legal is not really the issue for most of us, but privacy is.

    We never consider our emails what we say etc, but nor do we even think about our texting and everything else we do online.

    I’m glad you point this out, even when we know this, it is good to be reminded, as well as share with those who never consider this at all.

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