Enron Offers An Unlikely Boost To E-Mail Surveillance
The public disclosure of reams of email messages investigated in the Enron probe gave scientists the opportunity to test their theory that a group’s intentions could be inferred by tracking emailing and word usage patterns without actually reading the messages.
After just a few months of scrutiny, about six research groups say they can capture important data and are polishing their data categorization and analysis ability. Carnegie Mellon University computer science professor Dr. Kathleen Carley says the Enron data showed an explosion of activity among top executives before the investigation, while the sudden cease in communications between each other and the accompanying uptick in communications with legal counsel after the probe began indicated growing nervousness.
Queen’s University computer scientist Dr. David Skillicorn says analysis revealed a junior-level executive of significance who was not listed in Enron’s organizational charts, and such a detection could be applied to probes of terrorist networks. Each crisis was marked by a surge in email, and certain messages featured word choices, routing patterns, and other indicators that enabled analysts to separate these emails from extraneous business or personal messages.
The scientists expect intelligence agencies to be conducting similar classified investigations of international email traffic, but University of Tennessee computer scientist Dr. Michael Berry is concerned that civilian email surveillance could have Orwellian overtones. For example, companies could use such techniques to keep tabs on employee attitudes and activities without actually eavesdropping on email exchanges, while advertisers could customize pitches based on word searches on individual email accounts.
“Will you let your email be mined so some car dealer can send information to you on car deals because you are talking to your friends about cars?” Berry asks.
Abstracted by the National Law Enforcement and Corrections Technology Center(NLECTC) from the New York Times (05/22/05); Kolata, Gina .