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Illustration by Emilio Rivera III.
Big Brother Is Watching
Be warned — more and more companies are monitoring e-mail. And deleting messages won't stop the snoops

Abowl of cherries ultimately unmasked the crooks — a group of corrupt executives at a Korean semiconductor manufacturer. They believed they had thought of everything. In an elaborate scam, they diverted part of the company's chip production to buyers who paid the clique, not the company, with the ill-gotten gains deposited into a secret bank account. When the ringleader e-mailed the account password to his cohorts so they could access the ill-gotten gains, he also sent a digitized photo of a bowl of cherries, with a handwritten note in Korean: "Life is a bowl of cherries, and we're in the money." He later deleted the message to prevent detection.

But the mastermind didn't count on David Mycroft, managing director of Computer Forensics Hong Kong, who was hired by the microchip firm to investigate. After four days of searching through deleted e-mails and scanning data from the ringleader's hard drive, the cybersleuth hit pay dirt. "It was a 'Eureka' moment," he says. "When I found the picture, I knew I was onto something." Further confirming Mycroft's suspicions was another deleted e-mail. In it was the English word "password" in between Korean text, along with the name of a prominent bank, also in English. The jig was up.

Do's and Dont's of Cybermessaging
Most people don't have to worry about e-mail landing them in jail, unlike many a crook who thought his cybermessages were safe from prying eyes. But one still has to be careful about what he types and clicks. Here are some things to bear in mind before you send that missive:
DON'T SEND SENSITIVE DATA by unsecured e-mail. If it's secret, use a secure, encrypted messaging system.
DO READ YOUR MESSAGE before sending it. Things to check: Is there anything open to misunderstanding? Is it addressed correctly? Are there dumb errors of fact and grammar?
DON'T WASTE TIME and computer resources with long frivolous e-mails and large, unnecessary attachments. Otherwise, colleagues will get into the habit of ignoring your notes.
DO BE SENSITIVE TO FEELINGS Remember that written text could be read with a variety of emotions. What may be intended as a joke could come across as a flame. Needless to say, flaming is a no-no.
Most executives don't divert products for illicit gains. But the same e-mail transparency that foiled the Korean criminals affects offices everywhere. Concerns about corporate spying on employees now pop up nearly as often as instant messaging services. After all, e-mail privacy is a contradiction in terms. "If you write something in an e-mail," says Mycroft, "somebody else, apart from whom you're writing to, will be able to find it." Copies of every message are stored in all computers through which it passes from the sender through company and Internet servers to the recipient. And a firm is legally permitted to look at everything written, transmitted and stored on its PCs. In fact, the law in most nations allows companies to keep tabs on all communication, including telephone, fax, and e-mail.

Nearly one-third of Hong Kong companies monitor employee computer use, according to the territory's Privacy Commissioner's Office. Yet fewer than one in every five firms tell their staff that their PCs are being watched and scanned. "Since it is company-supplied equipment, to ensure that it's being properly used, acquiring certain information does not infringe the law," says Stephen Lau, the territory's privacy commissioner.

Most employees are unaware not just of what the law says, but how computers work. "People are very suspicious, and yet are remarkably ignorant about e-mail's lax security standards," says Mycroft, "They assume that if they delete it, that's the end of it." Nothing could be farther from the truth. As with any computer file, deleting a message simply removes its name from the hard-disk directory. The e-mail's content remains on the disk until the space it occupies is used by another message — for weeks, months or even years. Just ask Bill Gates, whose four-year-old personal e-mail files were dragged out in the antitrust case against Microsoft.

Employers worried about the Internet's propensity to distract their staff, insist that productivity, rather than privacy, is the paramount concern. Those suspicions are amply warranted. A Hong Kong survey by International Data Corp. found that employees with online access spend almost three hours a week sending personal e-mail and surfing the web at work.

Even in staunchly regulated Singapore, office staff have admitted sending non-work messages from office terminals every day. All this recreational computer use lowers productivity and adds to the cost of Internet connections.

Electronic surveillance, some believe, is the answer. "What people should get in their heads is that there's nothing private about e-mail on a company system," says Bob McAuley, managing director of security firm Kroll Asia. "We can find whatever goes on in someone's computer."

So too can anyone with newly available programs that enable users to know whether messages sent across the Internet have been read and even forwarded to others. This software, along with tracking services available online, is making e-mail monitoring incredibly simple — and nearly impossible to detect.

Despite all of e-mail's tracking implications, however, messaging-mad employees don't have too much to worry about — yet. "In reality, the amount of e-mail traffic going through company networks is so huge that it's extremely difficult to monitor everything," says McAuley. Instead, companies are installing filter systems that block offensive material, or scan for key words chosen by the company itself. So mundane e-mails to friends will probably still sneak past the electronic net. Serious e-mail monitoring, McAuley says, only arises when the company already detects a problem. "By the time we get into things like retrieving deleted e-mail, the company already knows it's looking for trouble," he explains.

Still, some employees do get caught. In October, 15 Merrill Lynch London traders were fired for circulating pornography in the company e-mail system. "Your bosses can find out exactly what you're up to on your computer. They will know if you've been working or not," Mycroft warns. Big Brother has gone corporate. Cyberslackers, consider yourselves warned.

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