SEATTLE – E-mails can be treacherous. All it takes is a momentary lapse in concentration, a small slip of the fingers, for sensitive messages to be sent to the wrong person. Angry rants about the boss end up in his inbox. Embarrassing secrets are revealed to strangers. The result can be cringeworthy, even dangerous.
Now Google has worked out a method to make sure that your e-mails go to their intended destination. The company has launched "Got The Wrong Bob?", a new feature for Gmail, its e-mail service.
The application warns users that they may have typed the wrong e-mail address and forces people to double-check before sending.
It is the brainchild of Yossi Matias, a Google engineer. He told The Times that he was inspired after receiving a flood of hastily sent missives.
"It often came across these messages by mistake because Yossi is a common name in Israel, which is where I come from," he said.
"One was a communication between two people. They were having a conversation about the future of a colleague but had accidentally included him in the e-mails. So I thought that maybe we can provide a feature that can recognise this."
The system works by analysing the groups of people you usually send e-mails to. It can then see when someone has included an unexpected address among the intended recipients. The problem often arises because many e-mail systems, including Gmail, have an auto-complete function, which fills in the names of people from a sender’s address book after the first few letters are typed. As a result, it is easy to send an e-mail meant for a friend called Alex, to All Staff instead. Got The Wrong Bob? hopes to warn users before they make this mistake.
"We want our e-mail systems to help us," Matias said. "But now e-mail is everywhere and our attention to detail has diminished."
The feature is available free to the tens of millions of Gmail users. However, there are limits to how much the system can help to avoid slip-ups. It works only when a person is sending an e-mail to a group. If a user sends a message to only one recipient and types in the wrong address, there is no safety net.
Google has created other applications that help users to avoid blunders. The "Mail Goggles" feature, which was introduced last year, stops people from sending e-mails if they are drunk. After a certain time in the evening people are asked to answer mathematical questions before they can send messages.