KAI RYSSDAL: No matter how many times the cautionary tale is told, somebody still does it. They write an e-mail they shouldn't have.
And you don't have to look too far for examples. Maybe no farther than you today, or me for that matter.
For businesses, though, e-mails gone wrong can be a matter of corporate life and death. Alex Goldmark tells us about one possible solution.
[Mission Impossible music]
SPY: This message will self-destruct in five seconds. Good luck Ethan, and thanks again.
ALEX GOLDMARK: Unlike Mission Impossible messages, business e-mails don't vanish with a bang.
But at least one new e-mail product is changing that.
JOSEPH COLLINS: VaporStream is the world's first recordless electronic communication.
Joseph Collins is founder and CEO of the VaporStream service that costs just under $40 a year.
COLLINS: That allows for peer-to-peer communications that doesn't leave a record on the peer's computers or our servers.
Subscribers log on to vaporstream.com to send their messages to other subscribers. As soon as a recipient reads the message, it gets vaporized.
So every message is top secret.
You can't forward it or save it. And there's no archive. Great for interoffice love notes, or the occasional dirty joke.
Also, Collins points out it's useful for corporate missives about sensitive topics, like R&D, contract negotiations, or touchy HR deliberations.
COLLINS: If they're gonna fire John, and John's the older person, there has to be frank conversations about that. And a lot of people are shying away from those frank conversations online because they're afraid that this record is gonna come back to bite 'em.
Hmmm. Does that mean the software can help mask discrimination or even insider trading?
Collins acknowledges his product could be misused. But he points out the software doesn't make the man.
COLLINS: If you're gonna do insider trading you can do it at the bar, face to face. You don't necessarily need VaporStream at all. And VaporStream isn't the crime. The crime is the crime itself.
Uncovering the crime itself is what Bryan Rose specializes in. He's a former federal prosecutor, now at computer forensics firm Stroz Friedberg. He's watching these new confidential e-mail products.
BRYAN ROSE: It really is a lot like a spy adventure. It's a very interesting, developing technology.
But he says no matter what you send or how you send it, your own computer might just be capturing a record of what you do. Even if you never hit save. He says it happens.
ROSE: You know, we find that information and it's often the smoking gun in litigation.
And litigation can be costly, even if you win. Here's where services like VaporStream can help by slimming down your archives. That means the less you have to pay a pricey lawyer to review your archives if you get sued. But the main thing is save what regulators tell you to.
Nancy Flynn is executive director of the ePolicy Institute and, boy, does she love policy.
NANCY FLYNN: First of all, the courts appreciate consistency and that's why you want to have a policy. And you want to —absolutely, 100 percent — adhere to that policy.
Right now, only about 20 percent of companies do any training on which documents to save and which to destroy.
Flynn likes VaporStream because she thinks it will push companies to give employees clear direction on what to delete.
FLYNN: It essentially forces the organization to create that clear definition of business record versus nonessential e-mail.
Because everyone agrees that e-mail, deleted or not, can get you in a lot of trouble.
FLYNN: E-mail is the electronic equivalent of DNA evidence.
COLLINS: Remember that anything you put on e-mail and send is written in stone, and it's public knowledge.
ROSE: I always say, you should assume if you write something on your computer it's like writing a letter to The New York Times. You should assume that it's there, and you should never write anything through e-mail or on your computer that you don't want somebody else to read.
Eek. Rethinking my e-mail habits in New York, I'm Alex Goldmark for Marketplace.