E-mail is a great tool of communication but sometimes just a click of the send button can spell disaster.
When Devon schoolgirl Claire McDonald logged on to check her e-mails she was taken aback to find an urgent missive from the Pentagon among the chatty greetings from her friends. It contained confidential information not intended for civilian eyes.
Claire replied to point out the error, but the e-mails kept coming, from the Pentagon, the Ministry of Defence and elsewhere. One detailed communications problems on British warships; another New Zealand's defence strategy.
On average 11 such e-mails arrived a day for six months - so many that Claire's computer crashed, unable to cope with the huge files sizes.
It turned out a Royal Navy officer based at the Pentagon had inadvertently included Claire on a mailing list because of a typing error.
Anyone who claims never to have been caught out by such a simple mistake is either lying or is soon to come a-cropper, says Tony Hallett of Silicon.com. "Most of the time it's just people being stupid, and anyone can be stupid with something as simple as e-mail."
Claire tried to point out the error
A common clanger is to reply to the wrong person, whether by replying when you mean to forward an e-mail grumbling about the sender, or by hitting "reply all".
When Dave Gethings penned a very ripe reply to a colleague's invite to birthday drinks, he inadvertently sent it to everyone in the company - support staff, managers, directors, everybody. Some joked the party could double as Dave's leaving do.
"I just couldn't believe that he'd managed to send such an offensive e-mail to 1,000 people," gasped the birthday boy, Jo Younge. While Dave got away with his four-letter blunder, for others "send" can act as a self-destruct button.
E-mail in haste...
The beauty of e-mail - its speed and its immediacy - is also its pitfall. E-mail is now an everyday tool, but we still get caught out by basic gaffes, as a series of 10-minute programmes on BBC Two illustrates.
Sometimes the writer should have taken a few minutes to really think about the content - spin doctor Jo Moore's "today is a good day to bury bad news" e-mail of 11 September 2001 springs to mind. And sometimes a private exchange becomes a cyberspace juggernaut in the time it takes to read and hit "forward".
Jo Moore, her boss Stephen Byers and others lost their jobs
So how best to avoid e-mail clangers? One top tip is never to write anything you would be reluctant to say in person - avoid swearing, insulting people and discussing your private life. Most of us would hestitate before letting loose with a four-letter rant in the office, so why put it in writing?
And take time to think about what you've written. Words typed in haste - and perhaps in the heat of anger or passion - can cause hurt or offence, or be open to misinterpretation. This is not only a problem at work - one in 10 couples seen by Relate's counsellors have problems directly caused by the use of the web or e-mail.
"One of the things that frequently amazes us - even now - is how naive people are about e-mail," says Clive Carmichael Jones, of Vogon Computer Forensics.
"They think once they hit send, it's gone. But many copies exist - on your computer's hard drive, on your server, on the back-up tapes, on the recipient's computer, on their server and so on."
For your eyes only
We also forget that we have no control over who sees our e-mails. Not only do companies routinely screen for objectionable content, we also have no control over what the recipient does with a message.
Cherie Blair must surely regret her e-mails to convicted fraudster Peter Foster which later appeared in the Daily Mail.
You are a star... we are on the same wave length
Cherie Blair to Peter Foster, who helped her buy two flats
And when Claire Swire playfully commented on a sperm bank joke, little did she realise that her intimate exchange with boyfriend Bradley Chait would become global gossip fodder. For the ungallant Mr Chait forwarded her e-mail to six friends and so on and so on until millions had seen it.
And that just goes to show another problem with e-mail - it depersonalises the sender; transforms them from a person into a comment to be chortled over. Imagine if it was your private life made so horribly public? Discuss... over a cuppa.
The 10-part series E-mails You Wish You Hadn't Sent is broadcast on Wednesdays at 2150 GMT on BBC Two.
Send us your comments:
My company is rolling out instant messenger to cut out on e-mail, because it will allow direct communication and leave e-mail to relevant and important business exchange. But hang on, instant communication? Didn't someone invent the phone for that? People are just scared to talk to each other.
I work in an IT department and the number of people who walk away from machines leaving them logged on is amazing. They'll walk out the room leaving whoever pleases to play with their e-mail. In the end we walked round the buildings and sent an "abusive" e-mail to a member of senior management (who was with us) and summoned each user in turn... they were quite shocked.
A particular habit of a friend of mine (nameless to spare blushes) is prone to sending embarrassing, unintelligible drunken emails late at night, then forgetting all about it the next day. I have learned to delete them without reading - what are friends for?
Spoken words have so much information in its delivery that its true meaning is clear, but e-mail is blunt and open to interpretation. Smiles and so on help, but you cannot have an icon for every meaning. Perhaps I should not have told a friend he had a B.O. problem via e-mail after all :(
Chris Percy, Hull
Outlook has the option of "Send e-mail immediately when connected". By deselecting this option, mail is not sent until the next time the server is polled for new messages. This gives me a chance to intercept an outgoing message.
Julian Pedley, UK
It's a good idea to remove your "Reply to All" Icon from the menu, that way you won't inadvertently press it.
Chris Brooks, UK
I think the biggest idiots are the people who deal with tenders in local government and public bodies. Today, for the fifth time, I've been sent an e-mail from one of these idiots who has not made the effort to hide who they are sending the e-mail to, so I see the other 150 companies I am up against, and they see me. Surely, as they state all submissions will be in strictest confidence they should make an effort to use the "bcc" button.
Odilette O'Neil, UK
As a company, we needed to come up with a short, snappy slogan to get the point across in our training courses about e-mails being potentially dangerous. The answer was amazingly simple: "Don't e-mail something that you're not prepared to scream in a crowded room!"
Kevin Smith, UK
Years ago, when e-mail was a novelty, a message went out asking which menu choice people wanted for the company Christmas lunch, and I accidentally sent my reply "Chicken, Please!" to the entire company. For several years after that, any accidental use of the "Reply All" button was been greeted with a chorus of "Chicken, Please!" responses, much to the confusion of newer arrivals unfamiliar with my early gaffe.
I find that the "save as" command can be a lifesaver. If you feel strongly about something, by all means write the e-mail, but then save it as a draft document and re-read it once you feel a little cooler, possibly the following day.
If replying to something specifically directed at you, remember the power of silence.
Mark Dowd, UK
I took a "sick" day once and sent an e-mail the next day boasting to my friends about the cause; lots of beer! Except the e-mail went to my whole department by mistake instead!
I work somewhere else now.
I got caught out once like this - typing a rude e-mail that was never meant to be sent but then jokingly going for the 'send' button - it's a dangerous world.
It can be a good idea to open up a new mail when replying to somebody. This removes the chance of hitting forward or reply to all. Also save everything you send, you may need it as evidence someday! Don't put any information in that may get you in trouble. Someone may be your friend now, but who knows in six months!
Gary McAllister, England
Websites also can get you, I recently griped about a certain car on a website, and they published my e-mail. I got a flood of letters back asking if I could help others with the same problem. God, I never read the small print!!
I set my mail client (Eudora) so that the Send button just leaves the message in the outbox for about 5 minutes before really sending it. This gives me a chance to check that I mailed it to the right person, and gives the vital few minutes of cooling off. It's saved me from embarrassment on many occasions. Another useful tip: irony and sarcasm aren't often understood outside the UK, so be careful on web sites and international mailing lists...
I am beginning to regret sending that last e-mail. I have just realised that it could be read by the person I mentioned. Ohhhh the irony!
Chris Percy, Hull UK
It works both ways. A manager at a company I used to work for thought he was quite clever at concealing his racism from his employer.
Unfortunately for him an e-mail he sent with various racist 'jokes' was captured on our backup tapes and was instrumental in his dismissal.
The same points apply to Usenet posts with one extra gotcha - posts are archived (most notably on groups.google.com) so your rant will be stored for all posterity!
Mark Pavlou, United Kingdom
And then there's the one thing that can make a mild clanger a toe-curling disaster: trying, unsuccessfully, to recall an e-mail sent to the wrong person. It's like tagging it: "The sender is trying to save his hide. Please compound his/her mortification"
Diederik Klumper, Netherlands
E-mail can be very dangerous, as I discovered. One day an ex girlfriend phoned me to say that she had got engaged. I wasn't really over her and so sent an e-mail to my mates saying how amazed I was that "she'd found someone mad enough" and described her fiance in none too pleasant terms. Unfortunately, the e-mail found it's way to her, and him. He phoned me to threaten me in no uncertain terms! If only I'd have thought before sending!!!
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