Do you ever get a letter in your letterbox, read it, then put it back in the letterbox? If you work in an office with mail trays, do you ever put a document back in the same tray after treating it? The digital equivalent to these practices is keeping mail in our inboxes and outboxes, which has become common practice and is encouraged, with email providers boasting of their (increasingly) ample memory size.
While this practice is convenient, as the information is accessible from anywhere with an internet connection, this also makes it accessible to anyone with an internet connection and minimal hacking abilities. If you are not a seasoned techspert on internet security, chances are if a hacker wants to target you, they will succeed. Whether they are able to place malware on your device (through phishing or otherwise) is a different question, what we will be addressing here is accessing information stored in a cloud, which is far from a complex process. This can be done through methods ranging from guessing the password to using trial and error software (which can trump the amount of attempts allowed by resetting them every time the limit is attained, therefore providing an unlimited amount of undetectable guesses). So, if you were hacked tomorrow, how much information on you would be accessed?
Calendar – If a calendar is connected to the email provider and contains birthdays, this may give clues as to passwords, both the dates and the names. A way to minimize the risk is to keep a calendar separately.
Attachments – Do you need to keep copies of sent documents/photos if they are still on the device you sent them from? When you are the receiver, do you need them to stay in your inbox after you have downloaded them? If not, best to delete.
Accounts – Account confirmations (and subsequent newsletters) ranging from social media sites to financial services means anybody with access to your inbox may return to those sites, request password reset links, and lock you out of your account(s). A way to minimize the risk is to delete these messages and unsubscribe from newsletters.
If you use free email providers such as gmail, which relies on targeted advertising for revenue, contents of your email are consistently scanned automatically (and though anonymized, it is not difficult to attribute it to individuals when triangulating with adjacent services of the provider such as maps, calendar, search, etc.). Most online services presented as “free” rely on something in order to maintain their operation, and in the age of information, that “something”, more often than, not is data. If you are not paying, as the now popular saying goes, you are not a customer, you are the product. So, are you comfortable with the amount of information your email provider can extract from your inbox? If not, it may be time to switch to a paid email provider. For more security, consider providers with encryption.
Another element to consider is that the ability to consistently return to messages through a quick search stunts our need for remembering certain things, because the memory function is delegated to the email provider. While there are legitimate reasons for keeping certain textual records, whether sentimental or practical, do you need those records to sit in a cloud? If not, where possible, download emails, take screenshots, or paste texts into word processors before discarding them from your inbox. This also ensures any valuable information remains accessible to you even if you find yourself without internet access.