[Paleopsych] NYT: Enron Offers an Unlikely Boost to E-Mail Surveillance

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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.]


    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
    something significant?

    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
    people out."

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