How and why you'd edit incoming Outlook messages

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For many readers being able to edit incoming Outlook messages is just a handy feature, but for anyone in the legal or corporate world it could have interesting consequences.

In Outlook for Windows, open the email in a full window (not the Reading Pane) then go to Message | Move | Other Move Actions | Edit Message. Confusingly it’s not under ‘Editing’ on the same ribbon.

The email doesn’t seem to change but click in the message and you’ll see that it’s become editable.

Make all the changes and additions you like. Close the email window and you’ll be prompted to save the changes.

Why edit an incoming email?

A few uses:

  • Add some keywords or search terms so the message can be found later. We sometimes use this for incoming faxes (converted to PDF) that usually don’t have useful identifying information.
  • Add a translation for a message in another language. Get the translation from Microsoft or Google and paste into the message. A saved translation means you don’t have to get translation each time. The converted version will also appears in searches.

EDITING INCOMING MESSAGES

Thanks to everyone who wrote in about Outlook’s ability to edit an incoming message. For many readers it’s just a handy feature but for anyone in the legal or corporate world it could have interesting consequences.

I think the best summary can from James R who wrote:

“After working for many years for a legal department consulting on various IT issues, it has become remarkably clear to me that the law puts way more stock in the integrity of e-mail than is deserved. Email messages are edited enroute to there final destination every day. Most times these changes are innocuous, beneficial and mostly identified by the system doing the changes. However, it is a far leap from the integrity assumed by lawyers, and to be fair the vast majority of the e-mailing population “

While there’s a difference between the changes to the email header made enroute and changes in the substance of the message – his point is a good one. It’s a mistake to treat emails as having the same verifiable integrity as a printed document. Unlike a paper document, an email can be changed without trace and that needs to be acknowledged by everyone.

It’s worth remembering that not only received items can usually be edited but the ‘Sent Items’ copy of message you send can be edited after sending. So it is possible for someone to change their record of an email that was sent.

Far be it for us to give legal advice but we suspect that any savvy legal department is covering themselves by putting some form of disclaimer that says the emails supplied are as found and there’s no guarantee that the messages have not been edited after receipt. The same applies to government departments subject to Freedom of Information laws.

PREVENTING EDITING OF YOUR MESSAGES

There’s a few ways to block the editing of a message you have sent but they are by no means fool-proof.

In an all Outlook situation (ie sender and receiver) then marking the outgoing message as ‘Private’ will make the message body un-editable by the receiver. Strange, hardly obvious but true. You can mark an outgoing as Private in the View Menu, Options, Sensitivity.

Beyond the narrow confines of Outlook you can send the message with a digital signature attached. The signature should verify the sender and if the message is changed, the certificate should display an error. Sadly digital signing of emails has been poorly implemented in Outlook (it is there but it’s a pain to use and receive) and isn’t universally accepted so it is not the solution it could be.

Of course once you hit the Reply or Forward button you can edit the contents of the message to your hearts content but that doesn’t change the contents of the original incoming message.

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