Will They (or We) Ever Learn

Will They (or We) Ever Learn

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It has been said that those who do not study history are doomed to repeat it. The recent corporate scandals have shown that they (or should that be "we") never seem to learn from others' actions.

For example, a major accounting firm was convicted of federal criminal activity based, in part, on e-mail transmissions regarding shredding documents from its audit. If the communications had been by phone, would the result have been different? Who knows! The only thing we can all agree upon is that the prosecutors would probably never have had the exact words the parties exchanged and the precise date and time they did so.

Martha Stewart provides another, yet different, example of how technology can assist an investigation. If she had placed a "stop order" instructing her broker to sell her ImClone stock when the designated price was reached, the broker's computer system would have noted when the "stop order" was placed, then executed and preserved the record that way. A computer also recorded the precise date and time she talked to her broker on her cell phone and how long they spoke. This was easy to compare to the date the FDA advised ImClone that it was refusing to consider the company's application for a new cancer drug.

Can there be any doubt that e-mail messages and other computer records will be key components in the recent indictments against other former corporate chiefs? It is somewhat ironic that some of the most important evidence used against the accounting firm convicted for shredding paper consisted of computer records that were never deleted.

Likewise, is there any doubt that other witnesses will invoke their Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination, only to have their company's lower-level information technology staff member testify that certain incriminating e-mail messages came from the same person's computer? How can you explain this "love/hate" relationship we have with technology?

First, you have to understand that it is not new. As we have seen with the recent release of tapes of presidential discussions in the White House, even people who should certainly have known better seem to forget that their conversations are being recorded. Yet people who would be appalled at the thought that someone might tap their phones and record their words seem to have no qualms about carrying on the same conversation electronically and creating a complete transcript that could be read later.

Next, you have to accept that we are still only learning what these technological advances mean. Anyone who thinks the computer's "delete" key sends the record into oblivion has grown far too complacent. As computer hard drives grow larger and larger, it becomes more difficult to fill them, much less to overwrite the hard drive with new data. Chances are that the information placed on the computer will always be there and no sophisticated data recovery process will be needed to retrieve it.

[T]here are very few things we do during the day that do not create computerized footprints of everywhere you go and everything you do.

Finally, you should realize that there are very few things we do during the day that do not create computerized footprints of everywhere you go and everything you do. Your activities are constantly monitored, and if anyone wants to spend the time and money to track where you went and what you did on any given day, it can be done.

Your computerized footprints include:

  • Your home security system recording being armed when you leave for work;
  • Your "toll tag" recording when you passed various points on your commute to and from your office;
  • Your parking garage's computer recording when your car passed through the gate;
  • Your office computer system recording when you logged in;
  • Your telephone company recording the time and duration of every call you made or received;
  • Your mobile phone company recording the location of the cell towers your phone connected to as you moved about town during the day;
  • Your computer recording everything you worked on during the day;
  • Your Internet Service Provider (ISP) recording every web site you visited;
  • Your computer storing the cookies placed by each web site you visited;
  • Your e-mail system recording every word of your electronic conversations;
  • Your credit card companies and bank dutifully tracking your expenditures;
  • Your "frequent traveler" companies tracking everywhere you go when you are out of town;
  • Your "frequent shopper" companies tracking your spending habits down to the individual items you bought;
  • Your home security system recording when you returned to disarm it; and
  • Your cable company's computer possibly recording which channels you watched when you were at home.

Those were the easy ones. How about the rental cars with global positioning system (GPS) capabilities that track everywhere you drive (and how fast you drove)? People are now being billed by one company for taking cars out of state when they agreed not to do so. Perhaps many people overlooked how technology quickly found the men who recently robbed a Nebraska bank, killed five people and stole a getaway car shortly thereafter. According to CNN, "'the stolen Subaru was equipped with an OnStar navigation and communication system that police used to locate it,' said Cmdr. Brad Rice of the Nebraska State Patrol."

As with most parts of life, whether this is good or bad depends on your perspective. That can change over time. The truly private among us would be appalled by the thought of that many footprints being created as they go through the day. But if the same person had to provide an alibi to show that they were never at a crime scene where a person that matched their description committed a terrible crime, having corroborating data available from independent sources would give them great peace of mind.

This brings us back to where we began. What can we learn about our electronic footprints? Personally, perhaps we just need to learn that we are constantly making them and that, for better or worse, just creating them can have consequences. Professionally, we need to learn that others are creating footprints that can be tracked if knowing that information is important for your case. The information itself is neutral. How it is used is anything but neutral.


1 Certified in business bankruptcy by the American Board of Certification and the state of Texas. Return to article

Journal Date: 
Friday, November 1, 2002