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Eternal e-mails

message February 21, 1998
Web posted at: 1:00 p.m. EST (1800 GMT)

SAN FRANCISCO (CNN) -- You pour your heart out to an e-mail pal, hit "send" and delete all traces of the message from your computer. That, you figure, will take care of any "evidence" you'd like to keep from nosy busybodies, provided your friend deletes your message once it's read.


To the delight of some prosecutors, e-mails can live forever.

Even if the e-mail is deleted from the originating and receiving computers, the document can still remain on the main computer, or file server, that relayed the message.

"It doesn't really get erased, it just appears to," said Scott Gaidano, president of DriveSavers Data Recovery. "But it's there and it can be gotten, in most cases relatively easily."

CNN's Greg Lefevre explains how the e-mail you thought you deleted could come back to haunt you.
icon 2 min. VXtreme video

E-mails can be a high-priority item on a prosecutor's evidence list.

"Law enforcement people know that this is likely to be the place where there are some of the warts, disclosures, some of the admissions made, and so that's something that they seek right away," said former federal prosecutor Joe Russoniello.

E-mail is a popular, easy way to communicate   

Case in point: Consider how e-mails between former White House intern Monica Lewinsky and her turncoat pal Linda Tripp could bolster Whitewater prosecutor Ken Starr's case against President Clinton.

Starr is investigating whether Clinton and Lewinsky had a sexual relationship, and, if so, whether the president asked her to lie about it.

Clinton denies any involvement with the former intern.

Lewinsky submitted an affidavit to Paula Jones' attorneys in which she denied having a sexual relationship with the president and denied that he asked her to lie. Jones is suing the president for sexual harassment.

Enter Linda Tripp, who reportedly taped conversations with Lewinsky in which the young woman discussed her relationship with the president.

It was recently reported that Tripp turned over to Starr hard copies of e-mails from Lewinsky in which Lewinsky described some details of her relationship with Clinton.

If that's true, Starr could use the written documents to discredit accounts given by Lewinsky and Clinton.

So what does all of this mean for you?

CNN asked computer experts to provide the "10 commandments" of e-mail. They gave us two:

  • Don't think your e-mail is private.
  • Don't believe the delete key.

San Francisco Bureau Chief Greg Lefevre contributed to this report.

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Watch Science & Technology Week on CNN for more sci-tech stories.

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