You’ve Got Enron Mail!

Imagine you’re working for a big company. Like, say, number 7 on the Fortune 500 list. Oh, and it’s around the year 2000. No Facebook. No Gmail. We’re not thinking much about privacy. And then the company you work for goes bust in spectacular fashion. And then some regulator in Washington releases your work emails. All of them.

When these emails became public, for the first time there was a database of thousands of real emails sent by real people that were available to the public, and researchers. But these emails aren’t just a curiosity. They’re not just a time capsule. I bet something you used today was touched by these emails. They’ve become a huge part of all our lives.

Enron collapsed because of greed and corruption and fraud. But the emails Enron employees sent and received have had an astounding afterlife. They were used to create Siri and develop spam filtering and artificial intelligence. They’ve helped us understand gender and power. What happens when so much of our technology is based on the writings of some fallen energy tycoons? And should the emails have been released in the first place?

Enron collapsed nearly 20 years ago, but chances are something you use today was affected by emails sent by 150 of the company’s top employees. These emails — about meetings and energy markets but also affairs, divorces, and fraud — have helped create new technologies, fight terrorism, and added to our understanding of how we communicate.

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Credits

Production

Produced by Dan Bobkoff, Amy Pedulla, Jennifer Sigl, and Sarah Wyman.

  1. Mark H Weiss

    You should only use business email for business purposes.
    if these people wanted to stay private they should have just used their personal email accounts. That’s why I don’t do any personal email even on my Gmail accounts. Love the show.

  2. Tucker Teague

    At the time of Enron’s collapse, they were running the world’s largest Microsoft Exchange Server. This was the system that handled all of their corporate emails. It was a specially configured system of enormous size and computing power, pushing the available technology to its absolute limit. I was working for another company that provided the enterprise-grade antivirus software running on that system. My job was providing premium technical support to companies like Enron. One morning my phone rang and on the other end was the man whose job was keeping that email server up and running, but the server was having lots of issues, like running slow and dropping emails. He thought the culprit must be the antivirus software; not an uncommon assumption of email server administrators of that era. So he called me. Over the course of a couple of days, we figured out the issue was not the antivirus software, nor was it the system configuration, rather the issue was an enormous increase in the number of emails being handled by the server every hour, and many of those emails had attached files, thus putting more stress on the system. While helping him troubleshoot the problem I was also watching Enron implode on the news. After a couple of days, the man who called me no longer answered his phone or emails, and I began talking with his replacement, a man who had previously reported to the original server administrator. He was a nice guy and we were both watching the news. He said he better start looking for another job. I felt sorry for all the little guys like him caught in that mess.

  3. I was alarmed by the VO-hosts mention of using this algorithm to find terrorists. Can we ask hosts to be more sensitive to the issue?

    Terrorists to the US government are not necessarily “bad people” to the globe. Often we are dealing with remnants of failed US policy and bloodshed in countries of the global south.

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