×

Personal email is becoming less personal as hackers, government eye access

Email may seem like private correspondence and the ultimate convenience. Yet as the recent disclosures by Wikileaks illustrated, experts warn you shouldn't expect any privacy when you hit the "send" button.

With hacking and privacy breaches cropping up with increasing frequency, the stakes are higher than ever.

"I think it's wise for Americans to understand that their email privacy is threatened by a variety of fronts," privacy expert Claire Gartland told CNBC's "On The Money" in an interview.

Email hacks and leaks were a big story this election cycle, and it's causing some to reconsider how they use electronic communications.

Gartland, who is the director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center's Consumer Privacy Project, said it's not just WikiLeaks, or "identity thieves and hackers" who could infiltrate your electronic messages. Founded in 1994, the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) is an independent non-profit organization focusing on privacy and civil liberties issues.

"In addition, the government and even our own email service providers are also compromising the confidentiality of messages that we intend to be private. "


Just this week, the federal government gained additional powers to legally hack into any computer. Meanwhile, civil libertarians have also faulted email providers for how much cooperation they provide to government surveillance efforts.

Gartland explained that "law enforcement has unfortunately, quite a few tools available to them that allow them to compromise the privacy of our email communications."

Changes to Rule 41, the Department of Justice statute that regulates searches and seizures, took effect on Thursday. It allows the FBI to remotely hack into multiple computers and phones across the country, with a single warrant.

Calling the changes a "privacy threat," Garland argued that Rule 41 "allows the law enforcement actors and agencies really broad powers to remotely hack into countless email accounts to search for all sorts of information." She added that email providers themselves may in fact be "scanning" your messages.

Providers like Gmail "regularly and systematically scans all of the incoming email and outgoing email… to extract content for targeted advertising purposes," Garland said. "Then they combine that data with your search history, your web browsing, what you watched on YouTube."

Internet email is dominated by 3 major competitors. Alphabet's Gmail has 33.3 percent market share, Microsoft has 21.7 percent and Yahoo 14.8 percent, according to IBIS World figures.

In fourth place, AOL has an 8.2 percent share while the remaining 22 percent is divided among various providers.

If you want to safeguard your messages, Gartland said "there are a few basic steps every consumer can take" to boost your security.

"Have a strong password and not the same one across a variety of accounts," she said, also recommending Two Factor Authentication and encrypting sensitive documents.

On the Money airs on CNBC Saturday at 5:30 am ET, or check listings for air times in local markets.