Silence of the LANs

"Turns... If I help you, Clarice, it will be "turns" with us, too. Quid pro quo. I tell you things, you tell me things. Not about this case, though – about yourself. Yes or no"?

Ever thought of shredding your email? Try Cyberscrub.

It seems that everyone is worrying about email recently and they have a right to. You could be Ford or Allied Irish Bank or simply paranoid, like me, the Hannibal Lecter of IT, with a taste for good Chianti and raw information scandal.

Like it or not, most companies now need to think pretty seriously about having an email auditing programme (EAP) in place, increasingly squeezed as they are, between flesh-coloured concerns over personal privacy and the risk of corporate liability, a rock and a hard place.

Nobody of course wants to see his or her email auctioned-off to the highest bidder? That is, of course, what happened on eBay, when an auctioneer, using the alias of ‘Cruvdog’ offered 64 pages of personal email between Enron’s former Chairman, Kenneth Lay and it’s CEO Jeffrey Skilling to the highest bidder. In the popular rush for souvenirs eBay has been auctioning anything Enron branded. These include ‘Must Have’s’ such as resignation letters from Enron employees, mouse mats and branded golf balls, raising the whole tacky process into a serious privacy issue that goes well beyond the auditing scandal.

What happens then, if someone steals your mail? Who is responsible and can you protect yourself from the risk?

Fortunately, in the UK, we have the 1998 Data Protection Act, which offers us some protection in law and we have the right to see any personal information that is stored electronically as well as physically, the kind of progressive legislation which can make a Civil Servant's bottom twitch. Unfortunately, if an opportunist like Cruvdog, sniffing around an abandoned Mail Server, manages to find a few interesting scraps with your name attached and then proceeds to auction these from an offshore site, outside of the reach of the Data Protection Registrar, there's not much you can do about it other than protest at the injustice of it all.

There are of course many different examples of content "insecurity". My travels in the Middle-east have revealed that at the most senior and influential levels of government and industry people are using Hotmail and Yahoo accounts to bypass the routine monitoring of local Internet traffic. Osama Bin Laden had one such account and I’ll bet that Mr Arafat does too. It would be naïve to think that Western security services hadn’t spotted this little opportunity a long time ago.

Although such services are allegedly secure, email conversations still have to be kept on file ‘for reasons of national security’. Here, if the Government gets its’ way, every little indiscretion passed over the Internet will be available for seven years, including my innocent chat-room encounters with the fabulous 'Pussycat-1' in Vancouver, which may yet find their way into the Mail on Sunday.

As Bill Gates once discovered to his cost, a hasty email 'one-liner' can return to haunt you in court. A jury can broadly misinterpret even the friendliest expression of business rivalry, such as “Take care of them”, if the company in question subsequently collapses.

One security consultancy, is, I know, itching to sell the Whitehall mandarins an email auditing service and most recently, the very public confrontation between Mr Byers and Mr Sixsmith at the Department of Transport once again has the civil service agonising over their own use of email. You’ll remember the character of Sir Humphrey Appleby in ‘Yes Minister’, arguing that “The Official Secrets Act is there to protect official's secrets’ and the very idea of Open Government and email would have been anathema to him!

There’s a strange irony that people will write and include in an email, indiscretions and images that they would never dream of committing to a letter. Email encourages a feeling of invisibility, a splendid isolation from responsibility, which only exists in the imagination of the user, so remember, that everything you ever type in a message may be stored both locally and remotely and that a touch of paranoia isn’t such an unhealthy condition in a digital society.


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