Protect mail recipients’ privacy with bccs

December 6, 2010 at 1:40 pm

What occasioned this post was two e-mails I received in the past few weeks. Both were mass mailings. One was sent by a friend who was arranging a holiday brunch for group of 40-50 people and needed to run possible dates past each of us; the other came from a neighbor I’ve never met (or heard of), inviting me and dozens of other people in the neighborhood to take an upcoming class sponsored by the local Fire Department about coping with emergencies such as earthquakes. (I’m on that list, evidently, because another neighbor with whom I’m friendly included me in a mailing earlier this year about a volunteer effort to plant trees in our area.) I also regularly receive e-mail announcements from a crafts gallery in Northern California that I visit every now and then.

All of these mailings clearly display, both in the “cc” line and within the body of the message itself, the addresses of everyone on the mailing list — many of whom are complete strangers. While I seriously doubt that anyone who received these notes is likely to do anything to harm, or even annoy, me, I would have preferred not to have my contact information distributed to people I don’t know without my advance knowledge or permission.

It’s hard to believe that in this day and age, people don’t routinely use the “bcc” (“blind carbon copy”) option when sending e-mail to multiple recipients. This option, available in all e-mail programs, preserves the recipients’ privacy by hiding their addresses (that’s what the word “blind” means in this context; if that term is overly confusing, substitute the word “invisible”).

There is nothing sinister or devious about using bccs. They have been a standard practice in business letters since well before the advent of the personal computer. In general, they are used in two situations: (1) when senders don’t want the recipient to know that they are also mailing a copy of a letter to one specific person (for instance, you might write a demand letter to a contractor who defaulted on his legal obligations and send a bcc to your lawyer); and/or (2) when people send out mass mailings, such as newsletters, announcements, invitations, and the like.

In the second situation, bccs are considered good “netiquette.” They’re also prudent, given widespread concerns about privacy (resulting in part from the ease with which strangers can, and do, collect and disseminate information — or spread patent falsehoods — about others nowadays).[1]

The bcc field usually appears immediately below the cc field when you are composing an e-mail message. If you don’t see it, take a close look at the screen. In particular, try to locate a link labeled “Show bccs” or something similar. (You can press Ctrl F, type “bcc” — without quotation marks, of course — and click “Next” or “Find” to search for such a link.) Clicking the link should produce a standard bcc field, where you can type e-mail addresses or, better yet, pull them into the field directly from your address book.

Remember that addresses entered into the “To” or “cc” field are visible to everyone who receives an e-mail; addresses entered into the “bcc” field are invisible to the recipients (and, often, to the sender as well [2]).

Unless you know for certain that the recipients don’t mind sharing their address with others, it’s best to err on the side of caution. In other words, make it a general rule to use bccs for mass mailings.


[1] I’m not a lawyer, so I don’t know the legal implications of failing to use bccs. However, it isn’t hard to imagine circumstances where exposing someone’s e-mail address to a stranger could have adverse consequences that ultimately result in a lawsuit. This possibility alone strikes me as reason enough to use bccs when sending a mass mailing. Also, some people simply have strong feelings about not revealing their contact information to others without prior permission. Why risk alienating friends, family members, neighbors, co-workers, and/or potential or actual clients?

[2] All e-mail programs enable you to view the message “headers” in e-mails you have sent, although the location of this feature will vary depending on which program you use. Essentially, you will need to click to display your Sent folder, click to select/highlight a specific message that you’ve sent, then click View or some similar menu and look for a command such as Message Headers or Headers. For example, in Thunderbird, you click View, Headers, and then choose between “Normal” (collapsed headers) and “All” (expanded headers). The “All” option displays a list of the people to whom you have sent bccs.

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