[Paleopsych] NYT: Enron Offers an Unlikely Boost to E-Mail Surveillance
checker at panix.com
Sun May 22 17:04:28 UTC 2005
This is about finding patterns.
Enron Offers an Unlikely Boost to E-Mail Surveillance
[Click the URL to find a great graphic and a not so great one.]
By GINA KOLATA
AS an object of modern surveillance, e-mail is both reassuring and
troubling. It is a potential treasure trove for investigators
monitoring suspected terrorists and other criminals, but it also
creates the potential for abuse, by giving businesses and government
agencies an efficient means of monitoring the attitudes and activities
of employees and citizens.
Now the science of e-mail tracking and analysis has been given a
unlikely boost by a bitter chapter in the history of corporate
malfeasance - the Enron scandal.
In 2003, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission posted the company's
e-mail on its Web site, about 1.5 million messages. After duplicates
were weeded out, a half-million e-mails were left from about 150
accounts, including those of the company's top executives. Most were
sent from 1999 to 2001, a period when Enron executives were
manipulating financial data, making false public statements, engaging
in insider trading, and the company was coming under scrutiny by
Because of privacy concerns, large e-mail collections had not
previously been made publicly available, so this marked the first time
scientists had a sizable e-mail network to experiment with.
"While it's sad for the people at Enron that this happened, it's a
gold mine for researchers," said Dr. David Skillicorn, a computer
scientist at Queen's University in Canada.
Scientists had long theorized that tracking the e-mailing and word
usage patterns within a group over time - without ever actually
reading a single e-mail - could reveal a lot about what that group was
up to. The Enron material gave Mr. Skillicorn's group and a handful of
others a chance to test that theory, by seeing, first of all, if they
could spot sudden changes.
For example, would they be able to find the moment when someone's
memos, which were routinely read by a long list of people who never
responded, suddenly began generating private responses from some
recipients? Could they spot when a new person entered a communications
chain, or if old ones were suddenly shut out, and correlate it with
There may be commercial uses for the same techniques. For example,
they may enable advertisers to do word searches on individual e-mail
accounts and direct pitches based on word frequency.
"Will you let your e-mail be mined so some car dealer can send
information to you on car deals because you are talking to your
friends about cars?" asks Dr. Michael Berry, a computer scientist at
the University of Tennessee who has been analyzing the data.
Working with the Enron e-mail messages, about a half-dozen research
groups can report that after just a few months of study they have
already learned that they can glean telling information and are
refining their ability to sort and analyze it.
Dr. Kathleen Carley, a professor of computer science at Carnegie
Mellon University, has been trying to figure out who were the
important people at Enron by the patterns of who e-mailed whom, and
when and whether these people began changing their e-mail
communications when the company was being investigated.
Companies have organizational charts, but they reveal little about how
things really work, Dr. Carley said. Companies actually operate
through informal networks, which can be revealed by analyzing "who
spends time talking to whom, who are the power brokers, who are the
hidden individuals who have to know what's going on," she said.
With the Enron data, Dr. Carley continued, "what you see is that prior
to the investigation there is this surge in activity among the people
at the top of the corporate ladder." But she adds, "as soon as the
investigation starts, they stop communicating with each other and
start communicating with lawyers." It showed, she says, "that they
were becoming very nervous."
The analyses also found someone so junior she did not show up on
organization charts but who, whichever way the e-mail data was mined,
"shows up as a person of interest," Dr. Skillicorn said, in the
language of intelligence analysts. In the investigation of a terror
network, pinpointing such a person could be of enormous significance.
Dr. Berry said the e-mail traffic patterns tracked major events, like
the manipulation of California energy prices. "We could see how things
built up right before the bankruptcy," he said.
There were e-mail surges with each crisis, pointing to a problem that
was consuming Enron employees. And in each crisis, there were features
of certain e-mail messages - word choices, routing patterns - that
allowed the computer scientists to isolate them from the morass of
irrelevant personal or business messages.
One thing that didn't show up when the researchers screened for
changes in word use was guardedness, said Dr. Skillicorn, a failure
that was revealing in itself. Ordinarily, he said, when people are
being deceptive they are more self-conscious, and their word use
becomes simpler, as though they are trying too hard to sound natural.
But that apparently never occurred at Enron because its employees
remained unconcerned while they engaged in illegal activity. "It
wasn't a case of keeping a low profile," Dr. Skillicorn said. "They
didn't worry about the story they were telling."
The scientists who are studying the Enron data said they assumed
intelligence agencies are doing similar classified analyses on
international e-mail traffic. Since World War II, a five-nation
consortium of the United States, Canada, Britain, Australia and New
Zealand have cooperated in a vast communications collection and
analysis program called Echelon, for example, one that has assumed
increasing importance since the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
No one in the unclassified world knows precisely what is being done
with the Echelon data. But, Dr. Berry said, surveillance in the
civilian world could one day have troubling consequences. It could
allow companies, without ever actually infringing on e-mail
conversations, to track employee attitudes and activities closely and
"They can monitor discussions without actually isolating individuals,"
Dr. Berry said. "They can assess morale. If they make a cut in
salaries, how long does the unhappiness go on? You could track topics
and get a sense of how people are responding to policies and flag
potential hot spots." Or, he said, managers might be able to learn
which people have too much time on their hands.
And, as Dr. Skillicorn notes, if you try to write bland e-mail
messages with hidden communications, chances are the programs will
pick those out, too.
"It's clearly Orwellian," Dr. Berry said. "And I know that freaks
More information about the paleopsych