How to avoid privacy breaches with Outlook


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In the UK there’s a very sad example of email going awry. Hundreds of people with HIV being ‘outed’ when a London clinic sent out an email newsletter wrongly.

A staffer at the clinic sent out a regular newsletter but put the names & emails of the recipients in the TO or CC box instead of the BCC (Blind Carbon Copy) field.   As a result everyone who got the message could see the names and emails of all the other clients.  Many, but not all, the recipients are HIV positive.

Sending a mass email to clients is a common business practice.  It too easy to just use the BCC field but, as we’ve seen, it’s too easy to make a mistake.

Aside from the privacy breach by not using the BCC field, there are other risks.  A list of customers could reach a competitor.  Some viruses ‘farm’ addresses from received emails to send out more infected messages or copy the addresses to spammers.

Use Mail Merge

Microsoft Office has mail merge features that can also be used to send email messages too.  Email Merge sends an individual message out to each recipient so there’s no risk of data leakage.

Just like mail merge letters, sending individual emails lets you personalize each email by including other details like account number etc.

Individual emails are more likely to be passed by spam filters, which are, understandably, setup to be suspicious of BCC’d messages.

Sending emails via mail merge is quite simple.  In Word, go to the Mailings tab and choose Start Mail Merge | E-mail messages.  We prefer to use the Mail Merge Wizard at the bottom of that menu because it takes you through all the steps.

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The list of email recipients can be in another Word document, an Excel spreadsheet, Access database or other data sources.

To use an Outlook Contact List as the source, start the merge from Outlook.  In a Contact view choose Home | Mail Merge.

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For more details on Mail Merge to email check out

Clever Outlook Contacts which has an entire chapter on Mail Merge including merges to email.

Access Archon: Working with Word – if your source is an Access database.

Some downsides to consider:

Speed.  It can take a little while for all the messages to be sent (it depends on the number of emails to be sent, the size of each message, the speed of your Internet connection and speed of your mail host.  This isn’t usually a consideration, but if the message is urgent (e.g. advising a system outage or unexpected closure) you may need to use BCC.

Mail host limits.  Check if your mail host (i.e. the SMTP server setup in Outlook) has limits on the number of messages sent in a day or week.   You may need to apply for that limit to be lifted.

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