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Investigating Employees' E-Mail Use

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

When companies do spend the money to sort through emails, some turn to Elizabeth Charnock. She's CEO of a company called Cataphora. It sorts through millions of emails for many companies. And a search for corporate information is liable to turn up dirty jokes, health problems, evidence of crimes. Charnock says that's a change from the paper files that people used in the past.

Ms. ELIZABETH CHARNOCK (CEO, Cataphora): You get sued and the guys with uniforms and name tags would come and clear out your filing cabinet. You wouldn't have personal correspondence of a sensitive nature, for example, in your filing cabinet. You wouldn't put dirty jokes in your filing cabinet.

INSKEEP: You now have...

Ms. CHARNOCK: Whereas...

INSKEEP: ...situations, do you, where someone gets sued because of some stock trading, say, and all this other information comes up completely unrelated. Embarrassing or criminal acts gets swept up and exposed.

Ms. CHARNOCK: Oh, it happens all the time. People mocking a coworker, and then it comes out as what's known as a hot document in a lawsuit or an investigation. And it's not just egg on the face of the person; it's egg on the whole company and it can be a career-changing event in a non-positive way.

INSKEEP: In a non-positive way, what a great, great way to put it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. CHARNOCK: And what we see a lot of are huge numbers of emails that have phrases like delete this email, you know, all in capital letters, or don't worry, they'll never know, or you really don't want to know.

(Soundbite of laughter)

INSKEEP: Is it true that...

Ms. CHARNOCK: By the thousands.

INSKEEP: ...and is it true that you can't delete an email; it's impossible?

Ms. CHARNOCK: Unless you're very fortunate, it's impossible. It can get backed up before you know it, it could've been sent to other people, it could be archived without your realizing it. So really emails are like the cockroach of the electronic world. It's very difficult to get rid of.

INSKEEP: And I suppose part of your business is not only collecting this stuff but helping people to search through it in an effective way. Is that getting easier and easier as time goes on?

Ms. CHARNOCK: Actually, in some ways it's getting harder and harder. Because since we've been in business, the average size of an email - I'm not talking about the attachment but just the text in line - has shrunk by more than 50 percent. This has a lot to do with all of us who have our Blackberries and Treos and also the informality of instant messages.

INSKEEP: Uh-huh.

Mr. CHARNOCK: And so you have a much more complex problem than you had before because you have to take these little bits and nuggets of content and reunite them to understand a decision-making process.

INSKEEP: And who's employing you exactly?

Ms. CHARNOCK: Large corporations, but sometimes smaller ones as well, individual white collar defendants, sometimes government agencies.

INSKEEP: What kinds of government agencies?

Ms. CHARNOCK: Three letter ones.

(Soundbite of laughter)

INSKEEP: Well, I'm just, you know, thinking about three-letter agencies like CIA, NSA, agencies like that?

Ms. CHARNOCK: There's a great many three-letter agencies.

INSKEEP: How many emails could you search in an hour if you applied every bit of capacity you have?

Ms. CHARNOCK: Well, we routinely get collections of over ten million items, even for very routine cases.

INSKEEP: Ten million items - I mean, that's anything that might have crossed a company's desk.

Ms. CHARNOCK: Yes. Like, for example, in a particular division that was responsible for the manufacturing for a particular product they could say, hey, you know, if there was a defect in this, we want to see every email, every instant message, every Word document that anybody ever got, and without the judge necessarily realizing how many millions of items that might amount to.

INSKEEP: Do you think there's any limit to how much you can surveil someone throughout their electronic communications?

Ms. CHARNOCK: If you throw in everything that's possible to now have from card key accesses to cell phones to of course email and instant message and travel and expense reports and calendars, you'd be astonished by how clear a picture you can paint of behavior. And again, you would not normally do it but if there's tens of millions of dollars at stake, that's a point at which people start to get very interested in the behavior of the key litigants or actors in the investigation.

INSKEEP: Have you ever done a search on yourself?

Ms. CHARNOCK: No.

INSKEEP: Anything to find?

Ms. CHARNOCK: Everybody has fits of pique that get memorialized in email. I thinks that's just human nature.

INSKEEP: Elizabeth Charnock is CEO of the software company Cataphora. Thanks very much.

Ms. CHARNOCK: My pleasure.

INSKEEP: Okay. I'm on our Web site here and we've got some tips on how to email without worry. The summary is: don't email, but you can go find the tips at NPR.org. And tomorrow our series continues with email and encryption.

(Soundbite of song)

Unidentified Woman: (Singing) ...there's a story, a very sad tale of intrigue, romance and electronic mail, a dangerous form of information and the perils of instant gratification... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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