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Summary: Got access to email of people I would like to contact by an accident of the sender, is it ethical to contact them?


A few years ago I attended an important event. The invitation was sent by accident to all participants (about 25 people), but we could see each other's emails due to a mistake of the person who sent the emails.

Now, I am organizing an event and would like to invite these people to attend. The event 2 years ago was relatively small, so I did meet some of these people, however they did not give me directly their email.

In academia, this would not be a problem, however, this event was a business/politics event and the people I would like to contact are CEO's of companies, top members of the government and the media, that is, they do not have their email available to the public. Because of this, I believe they will be suspicious of my email from the beginning, even if I mention the event we both attended.

If one of these people replied, it would be very advantageous to me, but I don't want to damage the reputation of the event. Also, I was invited as a student to the event, so I do not have the same professional status as they have.

I would like to know your opinion of what to do. I have consulted some friends and it looks like this question is highly cultural dependent. Some people think sending the emails would signal I would really appreciate their presence in the event and I went out of my way to get their contact. For other people, I am only damaging the reputation of the event I was invited to for my own personal benefit.

This group of people I want to invite belongs to a variety of countries, so I would appreciate if you could mention your background when replying.

Thank you!


Edit 1

Thank you for the comments. I decided not to send the emails. Ripstein, the emails are not public. Hilmar, I think there could be a positive response because the topic of my event is related to the interests of the people I would contact from the list (I would contact only about 5 people, not all attendants) and they might be able to attend since the event will take place several months in the future. Droid, that's my favorite comment, it would be uncomfortable. However, it is hard to use that as a parameter because organizing an event makes me feel constantly uneasy, so it is hard to judge when I am pushing too far by oneself. Laurent, I think in this case it is not classified as spam legally because(1)I would only email ~5 people, (2) it is not malicious.


Edit 2

I would prefer not to add the location because this event involves mostly foreigners in the country it took place, so it could be misleading. Adding further details of the nationality of the involved could make links to the event, which is also undesirable.

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    Have you tried looking for those mail addresses on the Internet? To my understanding, if they are public, it is ethical to contact people through them. Otherwise no – Ripstein Aug 9 at 11:38
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    Even if you get a message through: What makes you think you would get a reply or an attendance out of this? Important people tend to be very busy with carefully groomed calendars – Hilmar Aug 9 at 12:32
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    If one of the recipients asked you how you obtained their email address would you be comfortable telling them the truth? – Laconic Droid Aug 9 at 12:57
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    Note that depending on your location and the exact content of the email you're sending, you might be required by law to have the recipient's opt-in before sending anything to him, so sending unsollicited email may be illegal. – Laurent S. Aug 9 at 12:59
  • Please add a location as in Europe this may be against GDPR regulations. Are you sending as an individual or as a company representative? – Smock Aug 9 at 13:54
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Got access to email of people I would like to contact by an accident of the sender, is it ethical to contact them?

No, it is not ethical. Furthermore, you might find your email address on the users permanent SPAM list. Also, in some locations it might be illegal.

If you decide to proceed anyway, use the BCC feature (Blind Carbon Copy) so that you do not make the same mistake as the other person. ( You don't want to re-share the email addresses )

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  1. Don't use e-mail address from few years ago from a non-official source
  2. Many CEOs have a public e-mail address (first.last@company.com). This may not go to the CEO directly but it does get read, pre-screened, and forwarded if it's relevant enough.
  3. Don't overthink this. Unless your event is truly special the likelihood of someone famous showing up is low, even if you get through their media defenses.
  4. Instead: Ignore the bling and focus on making your event a real success: Try to reach out to the people that are most relevant for your event and that can benefit the most
  • Thanks Hilmar, I decided not to send the emails. Some comments: 1,2- The emails were provided by the participants to the event, in some of the emails it was their private email, which could make it more problematic. 3,4-I agree it should not be the focus to have special guests, but they can be really important in an hierarchical culture and can make it easier to obtain sponsors and bring other partners. After confirming the president of two main universities and an ambassador, we were able to bring other CEO's, so the likelihood is not so small, although they were not notoriously famous. – Odano Naotake Aug 9 at 13:44
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Unethical? Yes.

Illegal? Reading https://cenkuslaw.com/annoying-email-confidentiality-disclaimers/ makes me think it isn't. You don't mention any explicit confidentially disclosure in the original email but even if there had been one it sounds like it probably wouldn't be legally enforceable anyway (emphasis mine):

Confidentiality obligations generally arise via contract, such as by signing a non-disclosure agreement (in my business law practice, I deal with NDAs a lot). Contracts, as you likely know, require both parties to agree – what the law calls a “meeting of the minds.” Dropping a standard confidentiality disclaimer at the bottom of every company email doesn’t unilaterally impose on a recipient of an email a duty of confidentiality. It does not unilaterally bind the recipient to an agreement regarding the email footer language since you can’t unilaterally impose an obligation of confidentiality on someone. If they aren’t already obligated to keep the information you share with them confidential (e.g., due to having signed a non-disclosure agreement (NDA) or for some other reason), your email disclaimer isn’t going to change that – the recipient is free to do what they want with your email.

If an explicit confidentially disclosure isn't legally enforceable then I can't imagine how an implicit confidentiality disclosure would carry any more weight.

Of course, it would probably be better to ask about the legal aspects on the law SE.

Also, as a general rule of thumb, if ever you find yourself questioning whether or not something is illegal, it probably means it's unethical, at the very least.

Practical Considerations: If no one asks how you got their email addresses then it's probably not going to be a huge issue. Of course, if they're a bunch of VIPs and you're not then the odds of them even opening up your email are slim to none.

(US citizen BTW)

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    Thank you. There was legal disclaimer in the original email and because I would only use a few email from the list it would not fall under spam laws, so my concern is mostly ethical, not legal. About the rule of thumb, I did not consider it was illegal, but I thought it could be wrong because it made me feel uneasy. – Odano Naotake Aug 9 at 13:52
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Your question is wrong. Legality and ethics are completely irrelevant here. The question is: What will you tell your boss if he gets emails from several people in reasonably high positions wanting to know why you are spamming them, with an implied “make sure this stops or else...”

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