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Personal Vs. Professional E Mail: The Palin Case

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2009 Annual Conference & Exposition


Austin, Texas

Publication Date

June 14, 2009

Start Date

June 14, 2009

End Date

June 17, 2009



Conference Session

Engineering Ethics: An Interdisciplinary Endeavor

Tagged Division

Liberal Education

Page Count


Page Numbers

14.954.1 - 14.954.8



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Paper Authors


Edward Gehringer North Carolina State University

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Ed Gehringer is an associate professor in the Department of Computer Science and the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at North Carolina State University. He has been a frequent presenter at education-based workshops in the areas of computer architecture and object-oriented systems. His research interests include architectural support for memory management, garbage collection, and computer-supported collaborative learning. He received a B.S. from the University of Detroit(-Mercy) in 1972, a B.A. from Wayne State University, also in 1972, and the Ph.D. from Purdue University in 1979.

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NOTE: The first page of text has been automatically extracted and included below in lieu of an abstract

Personal vs. Professional E-mail: the Palin Case

Edward F. Gehringer North Carolina State University


Last fall’s break-in of Vice-Presidential candidate Sarah Palin's private e-mail account can serve as a fascinating case study in an Ethics in Computing class. The break-in is a clear violation of federal law, and the ethics of that should not be in serious doubt. But what about posting the contents of her private e-mail on a public Web site? Was that unethical too, as a violation of privacy? Suppose the information posted revealed an indiscretion relevant to the campaign or a violation of the law, would it still be unethical, or does the public have a right to know? The Diebold case from a few years ago comes to mind; here confidential information about e-voting software was posted accidentally and resulted in a much-needed security audit. And what of the claim that Governor Palin was conducting some state business using her Yahoo account? If she did this to circumvent state open-records laws, it would clearly be illegal; but if not, could it still be considered unprofessional? And if so, is all business use of unofficial e-mail accounts unethical, even if the purpose is to, e.g., accommodate larger attachments than inboxes can hold on the employer's e-mail system? Suppose the employer has a policy (as some universities do) of allowing private use of the employer’s computer equipment, as long as it does not hinder official use? How can our students protect their accounts against break-ins? Not only does this case raise important privacy issues, it also touches on the issue of separation of work and personal life, which all of our students will face as they begin their careers.

1. Introduction

When someone, allegedly David Kernell [1], hacked into Vice-Presidential candidate Sarah Palin’s Yahoo account [2] last September 16, he highlighted a distinction that is rapidly growing in importance in today’s social-networked world: the difference between personal and professional e-mail. A decade ago, the average person might have had a single e-mail account. But now, increased monitoring by employers has led most employees to separate their “home” and “work” e-mail accounts. While the author could find no ethical guidelines that would require such a separation, it is clear that some activities should not go on using work e-mail while others are inappropriate on personal e-mail.

2. Personal use of professional e-mail accounts

Many employers permit personal use of company e-mail accounts, treating it the same way that they treat personal use of the telephone—it’s OK as long as it doesn’t get in the way of work activities. But that, obviously, does not include exchange of pornography, and companies also fire employees for offensive language and e-mail harassment. In fact, an American Management Association survey showed that about two-thirds of companies monitor their employees’ e-mail, and more than a quarter of companies have fired employees for misuse of their e-mail [3]. And e-mail is not quite like the telephone, because every outgoing message bears the name of the Proceedings of the 2009 American Society for Engineering Education Annual Conference & Exposition 1 Copyright 1 2009, American Society for Engineering Education

Gehringer, E. (2009, June), Personal Vs. Professional E Mail: The Palin Case Paper presented at 2009 Annual Conference & Exposition, Austin, Texas. 10.18260/1-2--5503

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