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Web based email services like Hotmail keep your mail on their servers. But your browser might be caching the email you read on your hard disk.

If you have a Hotmail account and you check your mail at your office, does the email go to the hard drive and how long will it stay there. Is it easy to retrieve and is it completely readable? Say an email from a year ago on a heavily used computer.

Yes and no.

Hotmail, like many other email services, is web-based. That means that all of your information, including your email, is kept on Hotmail's servers.

However, you do have to use a web browser, such as Internet Explorer or FireFox, to read your mail. That's when things get complicated.

By keeping all of your mail on its servers, web-based email services allow you to view your email from just about anywhere you can find a PC. Fire up a browser, login, and you've got your email.

So in that sense, no, Hotmail and other web-based services do not download your email to your computer.

In fact, that's one of the reasons I so strongly recommend avoiding these services for anything truly important, since you're at their mercy. You have no way of even backing up your email yourself. If the service fails, your email is lost or your account is stolen, you have no way to get it back.

"When you view your email on a web based email service, you're just viewing a web page like any other."

However, its important to know that some of your email may be present, in a different form, on the computer you read it on in your browser's cache.

Web browsers like Internet Explorer work by copying pages from the web sites you visit down to your machine, and then displaying them. When you view your email on a web based email service, you're just viewing a web page like any other. That means it can be cached.

That also means that anyone who comes along after you could, potentially, look in your browser's cache and see the email you recently viewed.

Viewing the contents of your browser's cache isn't very intuitive, but it can be done:

  • Internet Explorer 6 - Click on Tools, Internet Options, then click on the General tab, and then the Temporary Internet Files Settings... button. In the resulting dialog box, click on the View Files... button.

  • Internet Explorer 7 - Click on Tools, Internet Options, then click on the General tab, and then the Browsing History Settings button. In the resulting dialog box, click on the View Files... button.

  • Firefox 2 - In the address bar type about:cache, and press enter. Firefox will list information about both the in-memory cache and the on-disk cache, and include a link List Cache Entries for each which will allow you to browse the files within the cache.

Files remain in the cache for different amounts of time depending on how big the cache is, and how heavily the browser is used. It could be a few days, or it could be months.

If you're concerned about privacy, and you're trying to make sure there are no copies of your email left around, then you need to make sure to clear the browser cache when you're done. To do so:

  • Internet Explorer 6 - Click on Tools, Internet Options, then click on the General tab, and then the Temporary Internet Files Delete Files... button. In the resulting dialog box, make sure that Delete all offline content is checked, and click on OK.

  • Internet Explorer 7 - Click on Tools, Delete Browsing History, and then click on the Delete Files... button.

  • Firefox 2 - First, click on Tools, Options and then click on the Privacy tab. In the Private Data section, click on Settings.... In the resulting dialog make sure that Cache is checked and click OK. You can then click the Clear Now button on the Options dialog, or simply use the Tools menu, Clear Private Data item.

On the other hand, if you're looking for a piece of email that you recently viewed in your web based email, then rather than clearing the cache, you'll want to browse it instead, using the instructions earlier. This can get complicated, as the URLs for viewing mail aren't always simple or obvious. Pay particular attention to the base domain listed (i.e. something.something.hotmail.com or perhaps something.something.hotmail.msn.com), and the type of file being accessed (often ".htm", though Hotmail uses something called /cgi-bin/getmsg with a long string after it).

It may take some work, and to be honest what you're looking for may not be there - it may already have been cleared out of the cache. But depending on your situation, it may be worth the effort. Just remember that the more you use your internet browser, the more things will be "pushed out" of the cache to make room for the new pages you're visiting.

Article C2840 - November 15, 2006 « »

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Leo Leo A. Notenboom has been playing with computers since he was required to take a programming class in 1976. An 18 year career as a programmer at Microsoft soon followed. After "retiring" in 2001, Leo started Ask Leo! in 2003 as a place for answers to common computer and technical questions. More about Leo.

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21 Comments
DAn Ullman
November 16, 2006 9:19 AM

If you just want to clear the cache in Firefox it is faster to click on Tools, options, Advanced, Network Tab and click on Clear Now. Pre 2.0 this was in a reasonable place. You sort of get the impression that its new place was decided at the end of long meeting....

Lowell Baltz
December 11, 2006 7:40 AM

You sure know how to screw up a user friendly service---I can't even find out how to get my E mail.

Rennie
February 26, 2007 9:30 AM

I have signed up to hotmail today and am sorry to say it is a really bad experience. Why can I not get mail when I press the 'mail' tab? I have sent mail to the address and I have signed in, so I know it works in that respect. Please explain to me what I should do. I have used Outlook for 6 years and it is sooo much easier.
Thank you for your answer.
Rennie

Sally
March 20, 2007 12:02 AM

My old email- difficulty finding it. Will ck. the cache. Thanks.

belgica
March 22, 2007 12:50 PM

my name dosent whant to go in

Jamie
May 23, 2007 9:22 AM

l can not use my msn messenger and cannot get my messenges from my hotmail

chris
June 24, 2007 2:32 PM

well i have a question...if someone got into your e-mail account and sent messages or deleted messages....is there a way to find out what they sent or deleted,even after theyve deleted it out of the trash bin

walter-Opal Murphy
December 2, 2007 1:09 PM

I have been trying to read letters in my inbox and can't get anything to come up.What can I do?

Dessie Gibson
January 30, 2008 8:14 AM

how can i get connected back to my hotmail.

sam
February 8, 2008 11:24 AM

Dear Leo,

Im trying to locate an email in hotmail received many months ago. Please advise "how to" relocate it in order I can resave it elsewhere.

Many Thanks

Kind regards,

Sam

Edward J Reinholz
February 11, 2008 5:52 PM

Cant get into either my hotmail or messenger just goes blank nothing just a clear screen

Jay
June 12, 2008 6:29 PM

I am unable to locate my old hotmail, and I have a lotof important stuff, including my resume, that I just updated, any suggestions how I can retrive this info?

julie wade
July 3, 2008 12:44 PM

why cant i get connected to my yahoo mail and my emails (hotmail)

Barbara
September 14, 2008 2:17 PM

I thought I had registered an email account. Now when I send a message to it, it comes back undelivered. How can I tell if I registered this account or not?

Bridie O'Sullivan
December 4, 2008 6:57 AM

This is my normal account name. Because of problems, I changed my security code yesterday as advised online. Now I cannot get to my emails. A phone number would be much appreciated.
REGARDS - bRIEIE o'sULLIVAN

ritamslone
March 14, 2009 6:38 PM

why can't I get signed in. It won't come up so I can sign in.

Richine Wilson
March 30, 2009 8:41 PM

I am trying to locate lost Hot mail account email folders prior to windows live. There has been the loss of a loved one . I need those emails for estate purposes... Please help with any idea possible. this is not the same computer.The other one died hence saved mail.

Donna Milligan
October 1, 2009 10:25 AM

I registered and got Hotmail address but didn't use it but now I want to use it as my main address server. How can I find out my username and make a new password?

Thais Merrick
October 2, 2010 5:28 PM

I signed up with hotmail.com and now I can't find it I wanted to put it on a desk top short cut but somehow I don't see it. I do I retrieve it? Can it be a short cut? This is so frustrating

Giovanni Fazzone
March 10, 2011 10:45 PM

My hotmail account {email address removed} has been blocked as i probably forgot to log off when i checked my email from another computer while i was away.
i received an email from Windows live support saying that will send me a link to reset my account. but i did not receive it yet.

i need my account back as i have important information that i have been using for almost 7 years.
Thanks in advance
Giovanni

This article discusses recovery options for the various ways that Hotmail accounts can be lost or compromised: What are my Lost Hotmail Account and Password Recovery Options?
Leo
11-Mar-20111

jacqueline simmons
October 20, 2011 7:36 AM

my account has disappeared on my computor

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