We can’t all be Twilight Sparkle

March 22, 2016 - 9:24am

Over the last six months, one third of all complaints accepted by our Office concerned an email error that resulted in the inadvertent disclosure of personal information.

Email errors may occur when the wrong document is attached, recipients’ email addresses are exposed by listing them in the To: field rather than the Bcc: field – or most relevantly in our experience - the email message is sent to the wrong recipient.

Unless you are Twilight Sparkle, it is unlikely that you have an assistant baby dragon to magically deliver your messages using its green fire breath. Rather, it is likely that you use Microsoft Outlook to send your messages. And as humans, human error will sometimes find a way to slip through.

One of these ways is through Outlook’s ‘Auto-Complete’ function, which displays suggestions for names and email addresses as you start to type them. These suggestions are possible matches from a list of names and email addresses from the email messages that you have previously sent. While this feature offers you a short-cut when emailing frequently-used contacts, it also makes it very easy to send messages to the wrong person.

A failure to check that the Auto-Complete function had entered the correct person’s details into the To: field was how the personal details of world leaders was accidentally revealed by G20 organisers in 2014.

While it might not be always possible to stop human error, there are steps you can take to reduce the likelihood of it happening.

You can turn-off the Auto-Complete function by selecting File > Options > Mail and then scrolling down to the ‘Send messages’ section and unticking ‘Use Auto-Complete List to suggest names when typing in the To, Cc and Bcc lines’. For extra peace of mind, you can click the ‘Empty Auto-Complete List’ button to clear out all previously-used email addresses.

For those who can’t live without Auto-Complete, you can easily delete any incorrect, obsolete or redundant names and addresses so you don’t accidentally use them by pointing your mouse at the entry in the pop up list and clicking on the X to the right of it.

Either way, it is good to get into a strong habit of carefully checking all the address fields in your email before you press ‘send’.