Office of the Chief Information Security Officer

Email Privacy

Is Email Really Secure and Private?

Email is insecure by default; it is no more secure than a postcard sent by lettermail. Although the University follows sound IT practices and due diligence to provide secure, private and reliable email services to its users, it comes down to individual users to exercise caution when using email to communicate confidential or sensitive matters.

The following discusses some potential risks of using email, as well as what users should and should not send.

Risks of Using Email 

  1. Misdirection: when an email is unintentionally sent to the wrong person. Learn how to minimize the risk of sending misdirected emails.
  2. Interception: when an email is intercepted by hackers or government surveillance programs. Fortunately, any email sent through Gmail is encrypted for your protection. Learn more about encryption.
  3. Mishandling by recipient: when the recipient of an email stores it inappropriately, copies it, and/or forwards it to others. As you have no control over how a recipient handles your email, use caution when sending personal or sensitive information.
  4. Account vulnerabilities: these include a weak password and email phishing scams, both of which leave an email account vulnerable to external threats. Always set a strong password (eight to ten characters long) and never open suspicious emails.   

Guidelines for Sending Emails

Avoid emailing:

  • medical records;
  • credit card numbers;
  • social insurance numbers;
  • sensitive employee records:
    • personnel files,
    • salary,
    • discipline records,
    • information related to a law enforcement investigation,
    • third-party business information submitted in confidence.

In general, it is acceptable to email:

  • date of birth (but avoid where possible);
  • moderately sensitive information:
    • grades,
    • CCIDs,
    • employee and student ID numbers,
    • personal contact information;
  • non-sensitive information:
    • publicly displayed University email addresses,
    • accounting chart of accounts,
    • anything available on the University’s website.

Alternatives to Email:

  1. Encrypted attachment: encryption ensures that documents can only be read by the person with the decryption key. Learn more about encryption.
  2. Google Drive: Google Drive allows document collaboration only by those individuals with permission from the document owner. If permission is mistakenly granted, it can be revoked immediately. Note: sensitive health information should not be stored on Google Drive as it is currently out of scope of the University’s Privacy Impact Assessment. 
  3. Shared network drive: storing a document with personal information on a network drive shared with your faculty, department or unit is an acceptable way to share information between colleagues.
  4. Fax: while using a fax comes with its own risks, this is considered a more acceptable way to share personal information within the medical community than email. However, always ensure you follow the OIPC fax guidelines.
  5. Non-electronic methods: when in doubt, use a traditional method of exchanging information, such as mail, courier, campus mail, hand delivery, or a phone call.