Archive for the ‘Email’ Category

Score one for the Constitution! The US 6th Circuit just announced a decision upholding the requirement that police obtain a warrant before compelling an ISP to turn over your emails.

The background is that Steven Warshak was accused and eventually convicted of attempting to defraud the customers of Berkeley Premium Nutraceuticals (the distributor of Enzyte, an herbal supplement with some really goofy but apparently amazingly successful late night ads). The government agents in this case believed that they did not need a warrant because of some ambiguous provisions of the Stored Communications Act. (SCA was written in 1986 and had the unfortunate effect of codifying technology as it existed then. SCA has not held up well to the test of time.)

A number of privacy groups including EFF weighed in on the topic, successfully arguing that email users have a Fourth Amendment-protected expectation of privacy in the email they store with their email providers just like they do with traditional forms of communication like postal mail and telephone calls.

A warrant is easy to get and it’s unfortunate that the police in this case didn’t take the few extra minutes to document their probable cause. But the requirement for a warrant is an important check and balance on prosecution powers. The 6th Circuit did the right thing in finding that the Fourth Amendment applies to email, too. (They also did the right thing by narrowly ruling that this decision only overturns part of the matter. Warshak used some pretty sleazy practices and deserved to be put out of business.)

Next steps: It’s time for Congress to update the SCA.

For several years now, I have smugly been talking about the weak privacy standards of Google and Facebook, confident that my providers were better than that. Well, it turns out that Yahoo is guilty of the same things. Yes, I use the Yahoo webmail service and I’ve been very happy with it. And, yes, I strongly recommend that everyone have a personal webmail account that is unconnected to your current work email.

Anyway, about three months ago, Yahoo launched several information sharing services. If you use the Yahoo Contacts feature, other people in your address book would be able to see what you’ve been up to – postings, connections and other activities within the Yahoo sites. And you can see information about them.

In principal, I have nothing against features that let us share information with others. My problem is the underhanded way that these companies roll the new features out. I never received any announcement about them and certainly got no training on my options to control the information they would be sharing. Worse, the default settings are “share all”. You have to know to look for and then take deliberate action to restrict the sharing. I didn’t even notice the change for months. If these companies really cared about security, the defaults would be rolled out the other way.

If you are a Yahoo user and you use their Contacts feature, here’s how to lock the program back down:

  1. Log onto your Yahoo Mail account.
  2. Click the Contacts tab at top left.
  3. Click the Tools dropdown and select ‘Seeing Updates from …’
  4. For a full lockdown, uncheck both the master settings at the top of the screen (‘Share my Updates’ and ‘See Updates in Yahoo Mail’)

If you like the sharing but want to restrict it to the people you are actually close with (rather than every random business contact that you’ve ever added to your Blackberry), go through the list and select the ‘Stop Getting Updates’ at the right of the contact’s name. You can also get a little more granular control using the ‘Manage my Updates’ link near the top left of the page. But blocking everything is easier.

The Yahoo Calendar also has some Sharing settings but since I don’t use their calendar feature, I don’t have good advice for how to lock it down. Any suggestions from people who do use it?

The Wall Street Journal ran an article the other day about a new profanity policy. The policy is a spinout from the public embarrassment they got during a Senate hearing back in April. Some of the traders’ blunt and explicit comments about the securities they were selling were read on the Senate floor. (It was the first time I’d heard CSPAN bleeped out.) Ignoring the ethical issues of selling a product that you don’t believe in, Goldman is trying to reduce the potential for future embarrassment by cleaning up their language before the next time.

I have mixed opinions about the new policy. On the one hand, that industry has a very macho image. Profanity is an ingrained part of their culture. Profanity recognizes and reinforces the aggressive attitudes valued among the traders. Profanity can show the passion of the speaker. And, arguably, it helps in bonding and cultural norming. Similar trends are common among soldiers, journalists, police, some sports teams, etc. The language is offensive to outsiders but, in some ways, that’s the point. It becomes part of the group identity. And as long as it’s limited to the insiders who participate by choice, well, you should be cautious about changing the a successful culture.

Having said all that, I think the new policy is a good one. Clearly their behavior has gone too far. It was adversely impacting the business and needed to be reined in. More than that, the informal language leaked out of mere speech and into their emails, creating a permanent record that will inevitably be exposed to outsiders who do not participate in, understand or appreciate the ingroup’s culture – outsiders who may be deeply offended by the choice of language. That’s just inexcusable.

As we’ve often talked about before, emails are official business communications and must be treated as such. They deserve all the thought and professionalism that we used to put into a formal memo back in the days of carbon paper and typewriter ribbons. If you’d be embarrassed to have your email read in church or quoted on the front page of the newspaper, then you should rethink the message.

But I’m not such a fan of the automated filters that Goldman and others are using to enforce their policy. Profanity filters try to identify the offensive words and, depending on the company’s settings, return the email to the sender, block the email or allow the message to go through but flag a copy to HR. The filters use long lists of keywords, usually including common abbreviations and aliases (like adding ** in place of the vowels). The problem is that the offensiveness of a message is often dependent on context. As soon as you get a list long enough to be even marginally effective, you will inevitably suffer false positives.

As an example, my company tried to do something similar as a spam filter a few years back. In hindsight, it’s not really a surprise that construction companies (many of whom were our customers) use the word “erection” in legitimate business messages. BS can be a pejorative abbreviation or a respectable undergraduate degree. POS can describe a defective piece of hardware or your Point Of Sale register (and, yes, your POS can be a POS if you bought from the lowest bidder).

I should note that some of the most advanced filters now claim to be able to differentiate meaning based on the context of the message. They do alright for spam filtering and are showing promise for some other purposes but I don’t think they’re ready for use as profanity policy enforcement. The English language is too loose and our people are too creative. Very few of the filters would correctly parse the paragraph above and none can keep up with the changing acronyms and innuendo that people employ to dodge the censors. My prediction is that the filter will have some short-term shock value but the real change will only come when managers do their jobs – teaching employees the new standards, leading by example and holding people accountable when they backslide. That’s the only real way to change the culture.

“Cloud” computing has been a popular buzzword in the news for a few years now but it’s rarely defined. So in the interest of debunking some of the hype and identifying some of the unique risks, here goes…

Cloud computing means having someone else do your computing for you – taking data and calculations that you would have crunched on your own mainframe or workstation and, instead, crunching it on some computer on the internet. (The name comes from the IT diagramming convention of showing the internet as an amorphous cloud.) In theory, this gets you access to more and bigger computers than you would be able to afford yourself. It also gets you access to your data from any internet browser, not just your own dedicated computer. If you are a webmail user (yahoo, gmail, hotmail, etc), you are already using cloud computing.

There are two general business models for cloud computing providers. The first are companies who already have lots and lots of computers but who only need their computing power for surges. Amazon, Google and eBay might be examples. They have to build their data centers to handle Cyber-Monday. Renting computer time to you is a way to get back some of their investment when they’re not busy with their own crunch.

The second are companies who start out with the model of renting – the United Rentals of the computer world. IBM is moving aggressively in this space. A variation on this is Software-as-a-Service (or SAAS) where a particular vendor lets you move his application and the associated data out of your data center and onto his machines for a fee. Moving your financials to Peachtree’s online application might be an example.

In either business model, there are some serious security and legal issues to think through before you decide to outsource your computing. For example:

  1. Security – Are they able to keep your data separate from the data of all their other customers? Who else now has access to your confidential data?
  2. eDiscovery – If you get sued and have to turn over your computer records, can they segregate them? Can they produce your records fast enough to keep the courts happy? And how much are they going to charge you for the privilege?
  3. Privacy – What if the vendor gets a subpoena or request for your data? Will they fight it? Will they even tell you about it?
  4. Records Retention – Hopefully, you have a carefully thought-out policy that makes sure all information is kept as long as it is needed (either by the business or by law) but no longer. Keeping information longer than you need it is, by definition, risk without reward. How will you ensure that the vendor lives up to your policy?
  5. Privacy laws – Some of these vendors send data overseas. All of them send it outside your local jurisdiction. Is this contract going to get you in trouble with any processing, retention or transfer restrictions, such as those in the European Data Protection Directive? Worse, are you going to inherit those privacy obligations because your data is comingled with others?

Cloud computing can be a boon to small businesses that are growing rapidly and can’t yet afford a dedicated data center. But the cloud can also be a dangerous place. Don’t rush into the relationship without a lot of thought and consideration for the risks and for your mitigation strategy.

CNN recently ran an excellent article asking this question. The article included five case studies on privacy issues being raised by all our new technology. The connecting question was whether and how our old privacy laws apply to this new environment.

To me, the answer is simple. Yes, you are responsible for anything you write, whether you post it on Twitter, a personal blog or by regular mail. If your words would be libelous when published in the newspaper, they are equally libelous published online. (Of course, speaking the truth is the best defense against accusations of libel.)

The problem in my opinion is that being online gives some people an illusion of anonymity. (And, yes, it is an illusion – more on that in future posts.) This illusion encourages some to say things that they would never say in person. This is unacceptable to me. If you have something to say, stand up and be proud. Take all the credit – and all the blame – that your words deserve. Stand behind your words, whether you post them on Facebook or shout them from a soapbox in the village square.

In fairness, there are a few exceptions to that rule. Political dissent can be quite dangerous in some parts of the world. I am lucky enough to live in a country that explicitly protects political speech. Many in this world are not so blessed. True anonymity has a place in that arena and should be protected wherever and however possible. But short of the level of physical danger, you are responsible for what you say and should not expect otherwise.

Most other privacy “conundrums” are equally easy to solve if you fairly apply the old principles to the new environment. The differences are of degree and speed, not in the fundamental principles.