RealTime IT News

EnronEmail.com Serves Up Juicy Messages

Just in time for the start of the high-profile trial of former Enron executives Ken Lay and Jeffrey Skilling comes EnronEmail.com.

The new Web site features some 514,000 e-mails sent to and from 176 company employees from 2000 to 2002. Originally released by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), EnronEmail.com is set up to allow easy access to all the e-mails, searchable by a number of different search criteria. The trials of Lay and Skilling open on January 30.

There's also a blog at the site where visitors can post comments, as well as contests to identify the most outrageous e-mails in three categories: I'd fire him (or her); Enron's funniest jokes; and what were they thinking?

But there's a more serious purpose behind all this. InBoxer, the Concord, Mass.-based company behind EnronEmail.com says it is using it as a test site and showcase of an e-mail screening system it has in development. The company also worked with M.I.T. and think tank SRI to compile the e-mails in an easily accessible format and delete the irrelevant ones, such as system status notices from Enron's IT department.

"We discovered in our analysis that 28 percent of the e-mails had nothing to do with business," Roger Matus, CEO of InBoxer, told internetnews.com. "In investigating Enron, FERC created a Web site with all the e-mails, but it was difficult to use unless you knew what you were looking for. Enron's considered one of the greatest scandals in history, so we wanted to make all that information more available to the public."

The EnronEmail.com site includes a dashboard view where you can select e-mails to view by such categories as Privacy Violation, Objectionable Use, Intellectual Property or Marked Confidential.

Enron's manipulation of the energy market has been widely reported for years and will no doubt gain greater public awareness once the trial of its top execs gets underway. Less well-known is the communication among its employees. The Enron e-mails are an unprecedented two-year snapshot of a company culture and social interaction, at least as reflected by its electronic communications.

After viewing the site, some may ponder how much more damage to the economy Enron might have inflicted if its employees spent less time forwarding hundred-line IM exchanges between "Texas Deadhead" and "Miss Likki Mudd."

All of it was a dream test bed for InBoxer. Matus said he couldn't imagine any company letting a third party scrutinize its e-mails on such a scale.

The InBoxer Anti-Risk Appliance is due to ship this quarter. The system consists of a linux PC designed to connect to a company's network and scan e-mails using InBoxer's software for such things as inappropriate language, transmission of Social Security numbers and many other criteria that the IT department or other supervisory entity can preset.

Matus said several companies already are testing the product with a number of different objectives. "No one I'm talking to expects there to be no personal use of company e-mail," he said. "Let's say a company decides it can live with 28 percent of the messages being for non-business use, like in Enron's case. Well, they might want to know if more than 60 percent of the e-mails sent by one department aren't business related." In one case, Matus said a company has strict rules about a certain department not communicating with another department and is using the system to monitor any deviations from that policy.

If this all sounds like too much Big Brother in the workplace, Matus said it's nothing new. In a Forrester study released last year, thirty percent of the respondents, corporations with a thousand or more employees, said they have paid staff members monitoring outgoing e-mail.

"The key message I tell people is, do not believe for a moment your e-mail is private and confidential or that, if it serves the company's interest to publish it, that they won't do it."

From management's point of view, systems like the InBoxer Anti-Risk and others save time and labor costs and are designed to be more effective than manual screening.

On the most benign level, the Anti-Risk Appliance can be set up to automatically notify an employee that an e-mail has crossed a company guideline. But it could also be used by management to filter on specific words and abuses, or on transmission of sensitive or proprietary content.

Matus and his development staff have backgrounds in speech recognition, and the system, while not foolproof, does more than search for offensive language. It also analyzes the structure and format of e-mail content. A single offensive word or term in an e-mail won't usually trigger a warning, according to Matus, and he said the system understands words like "shitake mushroom" that might otherwise be misconstrued as an obscenity.

Comedian George Carlin had a famous routine about the seven words you can never say on TV. In the case of the Enron e-mails, Matus said, they looked for the seven obscene words and found at least one in 1,200 e-mails. They then broadened the search to look up offensive words as defined by Wikipedia. By that criterion, some 10,725 of the Enron e-mails had offensive words in them. A company can set its own criteria as to what it considers offensive content.

Said Matus: "A church might have very different material than 'Playboy.'"