City apologizes after sharing e-mail addresses

The city of Seattle violated e-mail etiquette by sending a message to more than 1,000 people that revealed everyone's individual e-mail address, offering a "raging invitation to spammers to steal the whole list," as one unhappy recipient wrote.

By the time the city realized its mistake, it was too late to retrieve the message, said Bill Schrier, the city's chief technology officer. He apologized for the error.

The snafu occurred in connection with a mass e-mail the city's Office of Cable Communications sent yesterday. The e-mail went to people who had registered concerns or comments regarding cable TV and high-speed Internet service provided by Comcast or its predecessors, including AT&T Broadband and a company called @Home.

The notice publicized a meeting Monday to take public comment on a contract the city is negotiating with Comcast. The meeting will be from 5 to 7 p.m. at Yesler Community Center, 915 E. Yesler Way.

But instead of hiding the e-mail addresses of all the recipients, as has become standard practice to protect privacy, the city listed them in the "to:" field.

The result: Everyone who received the e-mail also received e-mail addresses for a thousand other people on the city's cable and Internet distribution list.

Any of the recipients could misuse the addresses for spam or harassment, said Jordana Beebe, communications director for San Diego-based Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, a nonprofit consumer-information and advocacy group.

In some cases, exposed e-mails also could contribute to identity theft, said Joe Fisher, vice president of Tumbleweed Communications, a Redwood City, Calif.-based company that provides e-mail and file-transfer security products. Fisher said e-mail addresses are sometimes used as user names to access other systems, such as a company network.

"I assure you that we will take every precaution to prevent this from happening again," Schrier said via e-mail. "This is our error and I take full responsibility."

It wasn't clear, though, if the city intended to send an apology to the people on the list, which Beebe thought would be a good idea.

Both she and Fisher expressed surprise that the city lacks a filter to raise a flag when an e-mail contains an excessive number of addresses in the "to:" field.

Schrier said the city already has certain controls, such as limiting the size of attachments. In light of yesterday's incident, he said he has asked his staff to look into putting limits on messages that go out to the public.

It's ironic that Seattle's mistake occurred in the context of seeking public comment about Comcast. Three years ago, the city adopted an ordinance with the strongest cable privacy standards in the nation. Among other provisions, it requires companies to provide an easy way for customers to opt out of having their names and address sold to marketers.

In Seattle's case, the e-mail breach was mitigated by the fact that scores of e-mails could not be delivered because the city used out-of-date addresses. For example, in some cases, the city used a domain — "attbi.com" — that stopped working last December.

Schrier said the city is committed to privacy "for customers and constituents and will try harder to 'walk our talk' in the future."

Peter Lewis: 206-464-2217 or plewis@seattletimes.com