March 30, 2012

Lit crit or spooky surveillance?

Filed under: Business,Futures,Technology — by xrematon @ 9:38 pm
Tags: ,

Ever written the word ‘confused’, ‘secretive’ or ‘angry’ in a work email? Watch out – as someone might think you are on the cusp of plotting some dastardly scheme according to a recent article in the Economist.

The article describes how certain companies, in particular those at risk of employee fraud, are using specialist software to analyse the email communication of their staff and check for any suspicious activity. Apparently, using some of the above words would suggest an employee who is unhappy and worth keeping an eye on. Other give-aways include ‘call my mobile’ or ‘come by my office’ as they imply a desire to talk without being overheard; likewise be wary of words that suggest a personal relationship between an employee and an outsider (to potentially tip off) such as ‘beer’, ‘Facebook’ or ‘evening’.

All this surveillance sounds rather disturbing, and such concerns are picked up in the reader comments. The one I have included below also makes the point that governments as much as corporates are doing this kind of thing in America.

Why no mention of the core market for surveillance that has undoubtedly funded all this technology? Are corporate surveillance techniques not dwarfed by the American government’s own capabilities to mine all emails and phone calls along with a much deeper trove of personal, financial, and medical data? If our civil rights can be abrogated with impunity, a dictator can define his own “crooks,” much like a corporate titan can, to include any threat to his rule. The opinions of lawyers are malleable, as shown by Obama’s promise-breaking continuation of Bush and Cheney’s flouting of the constitution.

However, what intrigued me most in the article was the fact that the software must learn to adapt to the particular style of communication within a given sector.

For example, when software gurus at E&Y looked at e-mails among financial traders, their first impression was that “these guys’ hair is on fire,” recalls Vincent Walden, a fraudbuster at the firm. The e-mails were packed solid with swear-words. But this is how traders normally talk. It is when they go quiet that the software must prick up its electronic ears.

Imagine applying this software for another purpose – to evaluate the different literary styles across organisations and industries. The above suggests prose from financial traders would need to be x-rated; I wonder what would come up if we looked at doctors – perhaps not much better – or teachers – or saintly and demure librarians?!


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