Nov. 11, 2011 at 1:47 PM ET
An amazing tale of political corruption and breach of trust has arrived courtesy of scandal-ridden Hoboken, N.J., in case you needed a reminder that electronic voyeurs of many stripes might be reading your email. The town's information systems specialist allegedly set up a system to intercept all email going to or from Hoboken's mayor, and apparently made copies of the private notes for potential political opponents. The news was first reported in Hoboken's Patch.com Web site.
It's an open secret among IT workers that many find casually snooping on co-workers’ emails just too tempting. In a 2008 survey conducted by security firm Cyber-Ark, one in three "senior IT professionals" said they'd spied on co-workers’ email. This year, Cyber-Ark asked a slightly different question: "Have you ever used an administration password to access information that is otherwise confidential or sensitive?" One in five North American respondents said they had, as did one in three in Europe, the Middle East, and Africa.
It's hard to imagine a more sensitive example of IT data snooping than the Hoboken e-spying incident alleged by federal prosecutors.
The accused IT worker, Patrick Ricciardi, 45, is a longtime municipal employee. The current mayor, Dawn Zimmer, came to power in 2009 after a wide-ranging scandal involving the previous mayor, Peter Cammarano, who resigned from office in disgrace and received a 24-month prison sentence after an FBI corruption sting that netted 60 area officials.
In April, employees of the mayor's office became suspicious that emails were somehow being leaked after information in private messages began appearing in local media and on websites devoted to town politics. In May, according to Patch.com, FBI agents raided Town Hall and left with computers tagged as evidence.
Ricciardi did little to hide his tracks, according to the complaint. He's accused of using e-mail server settings to create an "Archive File" which created duplicates of every email sent to or from the mayor's account, and the accounts of other employees in the mayor's office. That archive file was allegedly found on Ricciardi's hard drive.
"This configuration intercepted emails as they were being sent, and placed them in the Archive File," the complaint alleges. A security audit also found that emails from the archive file had been forwarded to one current and one former municipal employee.
The indictment says Ricciardi confessed during an interview with FBI agents to creating the email archive in early 2010.
The archive was created "so that he could 'spy' on the Mayor and the mayor's office employees, and determine whether his job was secure," according to the indictment.
Electronic snooping is one of the ugly byproducts of the digital age; surveys are full of anonymous confessions from otherwise normal people turned e-spies by temptation. In a survey released in July by Retrovo Gadgetology, 33 percent of respondents said they'd checked their lovers email or call history without their knowledge. Among young people, the trend is even more dramatic, with 47 percent admitting such snooping.
Spouse spying is so common that many lovers have come to expect it. But unexpected, illicit snooping by backroom IT workers that victims may not even know seems even more creepy, and more Big Brotherish. Of course, in the U.S., companies enjoy a relatively unlimited right to snoop on their employees when they are using work computers. That right doesn't extend to casual voyeurism by IT workers, but it's important for every worker to know that email is not for their eyes only.
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