You’ve Got Enron Mail!

Roman Mars:
This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

Roman Mars:
Your online activity creates tons and tons of data and that data is valuable. Entire sectors of the economy are built on this principle, but there is one data set that has proven to be so incredibly valuable because it was available for free for anyone to use. And this data was gathered during the investigation of a crime. This is the story of the Enron emails that were collected as the government was building the case to prosecute the company that became the poster child for corporate crime. But since then, these emails have helped to create new technologies, fight terrorism, and added to our understanding of how we communicate. It’s an incredible story and when I heard it on Business Insider’s “Brought to you by…” podcast, formerly called “Household Name,” I was like, damn, I wish we reported that. And since they did such a stellar job, I thought we’d just present their story to you. It is fascinating. You are going to love it. To guide you through this twisted tale of crime and data, here is Dan Bobkoff.

Dan Bobkoff:
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. There’s no Facebook, no Gmail. We’re not thinking much about privacy. And then the company you work for goes bust in spectacular fashion.

[KPRC: WELL, IT WAS THE CORPORATE FRAUD CASE THAT SENT SHOCKWAVES ACROSS HOUSTON AND THE ENTIRE COUNTRY, THE FALL OF ENRON…]

[FOX26: CONGRESSIONAL HEARINGS BEGIN THIS MORNING IN THE ENRON INVESTIGATION…]

Dan Bobkoff:
And then some regulator in Washington releases your work emails — all of them. So all of a sudden, a lot of things in your life just became public. Like…

[JULY 28, 1999. 1:42 PM. ATTACHED ARE THE ABOVE-REFERENCED DOCUMENTS. HARD COPIES WILL FOLLOW.]

Dan Bobkoff:
But also some perhaps less routine business dealings.

[SUBJECT: RE: DARK STAR. TO FURTHER INSULATE THE COAL GROUP AND YOU FROM ANY CLAIM THAT ENRON MISUSED THE INFORMATION, I SUGGEST THAT YOU TRANSFER THE INFORMATION TO ME AND I WILL HOLD IT FOR SAFEKEEPING.]

Dan Bobkoff:
And some cliche bad workplace behavior.

[NO SUBJECT. I AM HEADING TO NEW ORLEANS THIS WEEKEND TO DO SOME PARTYING. NO EUROPA, JUST SLUTS IN THE QUARTER.]

Dan Bobkoff:
And let’s not forget the classic ’90s chain emails

[HOPE YOU’RE HAVING A PLEASANT FIRST WEEK OF 1999. THOUGHT I WOULD FORWARD THIS ON… TOP 22 SIGNS THAT YOU HAVE HAD TOO MUCH OF THE ’90S: 22. CLEANING UP THE DINING AREA MEANS GETTING THE FAST-FOOD BAGS OUT OF THE BACK SEAT OF YOUR CAR.]

Dan Bobkoff:
There were even some exchanges with coworkers that really shouldn’t have been in your work inbox.

[NO SUBJECT.
LET ME KNOW WHEN YOU ARE LEAVING.
I WILL BE LEAVING PROBABLY IN ABOUT 30-45 MINUTES.
WALK ME OUT? I’LL GIVE YOU A BIG WET KISS.
BUT I WANT MORE.
I’LL GIVE YOU ALL YOU WANT.]

Dan Bobkoff:
The emails you just heard, read by actors, are real emails. They’re just a few of the hundreds of thousands sent around the year 2000 by some of Enron’s highest-ranking employees. And when these emails became public, for the first time there was a database of thousands of real emails sent by real people that was available to the public, and researchers… and at least one podcast host. 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.

[MUSIC]

Dan Bobkoff:
From Business Insider and Stitcher, this is Household Name. Brands you know, stories you don’t. I’m Dan Bobkoff.

[MUSIC CONTINUES]

Dan Bobkoff:
Enron collapsed because of greed and corruption and fraud. But the emails that 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. But at what cost? 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?

[MUSIC ENDS]

Dan Bobkoff:
These days, Enron is pretty much shorthand for corporate scandal. But back in the ’90s, Enron was an energy trading company based in Houston. It bought, sold, and traded natural gas, electricity, and also apparently pulp and paper. But the thing Enron is really famous for is how it collapsed.

[MUSIC]

Dan Bobkoff:
In 2001, it was the biggest bankruptcy ever at that point. It looked suspicious because the company was telling everyone it was profitable and successful. And then out of nowhere, it went bust. The SEC investigated. Prosecutors pounced. A number of top executives went to prison for fraud.

[NEWS REPORT: GUILTY VERDICTS IN THE BIGGEST CASE OF CORPORATE FRAUD IN HISTORY.]

[NEWS REPORT: LAWYERS FOR JEFFERY SKILLING AND KENNETH LAY THREW AROUND COMPLICATED NOTIONS ABOUT MARGIN CALLS AND SHORT SELLING…]

Dan Bobkoff:
But the reason we have access to thousands of Enron’s emails is because of something else. Something Enron did in California.

[MUSIC]

Dan Bobkoff:
California became one of the first states to deregulate its energy markets in the mid-’90s. The idea was to introduce market forces and competition. You know, lower prices and such. Enron had lobbied hard for this. And then after deregulation came into play, mysteriously, California started experiencing serious energy shortages. And whenever that happened, Enron and some other companies just coincidentally raked in a whole bunch of cash.

Pat Wood:
The worst one was physical withholding. So you’d just say, ‘I’m not going to run my power plant tomorrow.’

Dan Bobkoff:
Pat Wood was an energy regulator with FERC, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. It was his job to help investigate this.

Pat Wood:
Now, no one was dumb enough to say, ‘I’m not going to run it so I can make money off of the scarcity price.’ But that’s what happens, I mean when you don’t run your power plant, which they were obligated to do.

Dan Bobkoff:
Wood says power suppliers would overplay maintenance issues. Exaggerate problems so they could shut down their plants.

Pat Wood:
What kind of smart engineer’s going to actually go question that? I mean, you really had to get people under oath to really figure all this out.

Dan Bobkoff:
There were other tricks. Enron would buy power in California, move it to Nevada, and then sell it back at a profit. Enron was making bank, but by the second half of 2000, the tricks turned into a full-on energy crisis. Electricity prices in California shot up 800% at one point. There were rolling blackouts affecting more than a million people. Now, Pat Wood is a free markets guy. He was all for de-regulating California’s energy market. But what Enron did with that freedom is not what he had in mind when he was promoting free markets.

Pat Wood:
I’m a big passionate defender of competition, but boy I’m ruthless against people who want to eff it up.

Dan Bobkoff:
So FERC investigated Enron and the market manipulators, and through the investigation got tons of documents. Like these memos describing in detail how Enron planned to manipulate the California markets to make lots of money.

Pat Wood:
They were really pretty shocking. I mean, for one who loves competition in markets, it just kind of made me nauseated because I thought, ‘Man, is this the enterprise that I helped create, was this house of cards? I mean, this is ridiculous.’ So I walked down the hall and showed it to my other three commissioners and I said, ‘you know, I got a problem with this.’

Dan Bobkoff:
During the investigation, Pat Wood and FERC were mostly focused on the memos. But they had also gotten a whole lot of emails from Enron.

Pat Wood:
It was huge, it was thousands of… I don’t remember if it’s terabytes or whatever the word after tera is, but it was huge.

Dan Bobkoff:
“So what were you finding in these emails that you wanted people to see?”

Pat Wood:
“You know, 95% of them were about nothing that we were interested in. But it’s hard to read. I mean, it was huge amounts of emails, so the other question was, there might be something that somebody finds here from reviewing this stuff that we might have missed.”

Dan Bobkoff:
FERC had to decide what to do with all this data. In 2003, Pat Wood was pissed about what Enron had done. So he kept thinking about “transparency.” Just put it all out there and let the public see what this company did.

Dan Bobkoff:
“But I’m sure behind the scenes, it must have been a hard decision to decide whether to release all these emails with all this personal information, and irrelevant things—”

Pat Wood:
“Yeah, I will tell you honestly Dan, that that issue was not front and center as much as it would be today, for example.”

Dan Bobkoff:
So Pat Wood and the FERC commissioners made a fateful decision. They just dumped the entire email archive on the internet. All the Enron emails about gas trading and meeting scheduling. And also the divorces and affairs and talk of parties. It was all there. I’ve heard different versions of what happened next. Some people say the emails were cleaned up. That someone went through and got rid of social security numbers, bank account info, and stuff like that. Other people say Enron employees were actually given a chance to go through and flag things they thought should be redacted. But either way, Pat Wood admits FERC didn’t try that hard to clean the emails up. And then after they were public, he just kind of forgot about the emails. Until I called a few weeks ago.

Dan Bobkoff:
“And so what did you think would happen, when you put all these emails out in the world?”

Pat Wood:
“Never dreamed… I mean, when you told me… when did we talk? Last week. When you told me what had gone on, I can’t tell you how much I’ve been looking on the web since you pointed me in that direction. There is so much on the web about this information…and I had no idea that that would be what would come of this…”

[MUSIC]

Dan Bobkoff:
The emails took on a life of their own. Far beyond what anyone at Enron or FERC could have imagined. Artificial intelligence, voice assistance, counterterrorism software. All have roots in the Enron emails. After FERC released the Enron emails back in 2003, they just kind of sat there. Even though they were public, no one was really reading them… because they were a MESS. Like, imagine you log into your email and you need to find one specific message. Except there’s no search function. You can’t organize by date or sender or subject line. There’s spam everywhere. That’s what the Enron emails were like. And there were like half a million of them. But this is where the Enron emails’ strange afterlife begins.

Dan Bobkoff:
First, some academics bought the emails from FERC. It became known as the Enron Corpus. Corpus by the way, is my new favorite word. The Enron Corpus cost ten grand. Then the researchers got to work cleaning it up, paring it down, and organizing it into something that could be cataloged and searched and studied. And then, they went wild. They wrote papers. Ran experiments. Invented whole new areas of research. Like… network science.

PJ Lamberson:
My name is PJ Lamberson, and I’m an assistant professor in the communication department at UCLA. My research focuses on social networks and collaboration.

Dan Bobkoff:
We called PJ Lamberson because he was actually our producer Sarah Wyman’s professor.

Sarah Wyman:
“Yeah, and that is a first day of class I will never forget.”

Dan Bobkoff:
“What happened?”

Sarah Wyman:
“It was just so cool! Like, we all came in, and on the board, he had projected a network that was made up of the Enron emails. And so what we’re looking at is a bunch of dots, basically, arranged in a pattern. And every dot represents an email address in the Corpus. And you can tell so much about Enron just from looking at this map, Dan.”

Dan Bobkoff:
“Like what?”

Sarah Wyman:
“Some of the dots are bigger than other dots, which means that they’re getting more emails.”

Dan Bobkoff:
“So, are those the powerful people?”

Sarah Wyman:
“Yeah. And you can also tell that some people are getting, like, way more emails than they’re sending, which is also kind of indicative of them being more important maybe? But then, the really cool thing… like the reason I still remember this class 4 years after the fact, is that if you take a step back and just look at the entire network, you see something that’s really interesting.”

Dan Bobkoff:
“What’s that?”

Sarah Wyman:
“So the way the map is organized, you can see projects. Because, you know, people at work will email back and forth when they’re working on something.”

Dan Bobkoff:
“Like we did with this episode.”

Sarah Wyman:
“Exactly. But the thing is, at Enron, they were not making podcasts, Dan. Some people were actually doing some really sketchy, illegal things. And on this map, you can actually visually see the difference. Like, the projects that were totally above board and fine look completely different from the ones that were shady.”

PJ Lamberson:
I guess the way I would describe it, if you look at the network where people are talking about an illicit or illegal project, it looks like a really tight ball with a few little spikes sticking out of it. So what that’s showing is that, for those illegal projects, that the communication is really concentrated among a core of individuals, and they’re not sharing that information or dispersing information about that project with other parts of the organization.

Sarah Wyman:
“Okay, and this is the best part. Because a computer has identified this. It’s like a magic trick. The computer just has all of the data that’s in the Corpus, that in and of itself doesn’t actually make that much sense to anyone and it just looks like a huge mess, but once you run an algorithm on that data, it’s like shining a blacklight on all of the corruption that was happening at Enron. Like, you can just see it laid out bare in front of you in this network.”

Dan Bobkoff:
“Yeah, so this is clearly really useful to people for a lot of things.”

Sarah Wyman:
“Yeah! And there’s so much cool stuff that’s happening with this technology. Like, people are using it to predict how viruses spread through populations. Because the software can identify the people within a group who are most likely to spread something to the rest of the group, fast.”

Dan Bobkoff:
“So, like the guy who’s just going around shaking lots of peoples’ hands will like show up in this algorithm.”

Sarah Wyman:
“Right, but maybe one of the most interesting applications of this technology is it’s actually being used to identify terrorist cells. So like if you have phone records from a group of people, you can run these algorithms on those phone records and they can detect kind of abnormal patterns of communication. And you can see where the terrorist cells are.”

Dan Bobkoff:
“Okay. So the technology we developed using emails from Enron is now being used to fight terror.”

Sarah Wyman:
“Yeah, it’s being used for all kinds of stuff.”

[MUSIC]

Dan Bobkoff:
The Enron emails have been a huge opportunity for researchers like Sarah’s professor. They’re publicly available. There’s no copyright. Researchers can swap them between institutions because no one owns them. But they’ve also been a really big deal for any research or technology that involves language. Because these emails, this corpus, is a rare example of unfiltered, uncensored, totally organic human communication.

Owen Rambow:
So the bankruptcy of Enron was really the wonderful stroke of luck for researchers interested in conversation.

Dan Bobkoff:
This is Owen Rambow. He works at an artificial intelligence company called Elemental Cognition, used to teach at Columbia. He’s been a part of lots of different research projects involving the Enron emails, and a lot of them involve using the Corpus to train computers to understand human language.

Owen Rambow:
It’s unique. There’s nothing quite like it. And it’s real, you know these are real people who are conversing, not in order to create data for linguists, but in order to achieve their goals, whatever it was, some work-related goal or just tell each other jokes or whatever.

Dan Bobkoff:
Before the Enron emails, researchers like Rambow mostly had to work with stilted conversations or text from old newspapers.

Owen Rambow:
One typical example is that people, or students, are brought into a lab and play a game against each other and engage in conversation as part of the game playing. So they’re real conversations but they’re very limited and they’re not naturally occurring.

Dan Bobkoff:
But these Enron emails were what people really say to one another, especially when they don’t think anyone is reading over their shoulder. And they’ve taught Rambow, and computers, a lot about how humans communicate. Like, based on syntax and word choice, you can predict if an email’s sender is male or female. A boss or an underling. Bosses write shorter emails. Male bosses tend to write direct emails like “give me the report by Monday.” Female bosses tend to say things like “would you be able to finish the report by Monday?”

Owen Rambow:
I can say something like, ‘it’s hot in here’ and it can either be a speech act to inform you of this fact or it can be a speech act to request that you turn on the air conditioning.

Dan Bobkoff:
“It is hot in here. I’m sorry.”

Owen Rambow:
“Yep. It’s actually okay.”

Dan Bobkoff:
These are the kinds of problems that cause bugs in artificial intelligence. Machines aren’t great at interpreting nuance or tone or intent. They need practice. And the Enron Corpus is like one giant, perfect training ground for developing those skills. It’s helped train spam filters. Hey, the Enron emails had a lot of spam.

[SPAM: WE CAN CONNECT YOU TO THE WORLD’S RICH & FAMOUS! CAPTURE THE ATTENTION OF MILLIONAIRES!]

Dan Bobkoff:
The emails played a role in the development of Siri. Google reportedly used them when it was developing smart compose in Gmail. If you’ve used Gmail in the last year or so you’ll know what I’m talking about. This is that thing where it predicts what it thinks you want to say next. Sometimes it’s really helpful. But early versions had a bad habit of suggesting the phrase “I love you” a little too often.

[MUSIC]

Dan Bobkoff:
If you’re a researcher, you could spend hours sifting, organizing, studying these emails… and come to think of them purely as data. And then you might come across one like this.

[NOVEMBER 26, 2001. 7:23 PM. NO SUBJECT. SO…. YOU WERE LOOKING FOR A ONE NIGHT STAND AFTER ALL … ??]

Dan Bobkoff:
Whoever wrote that email probably didn’t want it to have a long legacy.

Dan Bobkoff:
“Did you feel any ethical qualms using the Enron emails?”

Owen Rambow:
“I relied on the process having worked, the process being that people were given the chance to withdraw emails. This said, I had my doubts because in one of the releases… The very first email you saw was a very personal email, which probably the sender didn’t, or the receiver more likely, didn’t want spread around.”

Dan Bobkoff:
A few years ago, Owen Rambow was on a train in Texas. He and his husband were sitting in the dining car.

Owen Rambow:
And we just started talking to the people who were added to our table and they were from Houston. And I was working on Enron day in and day out. So I just said, oh did you work for Enron? Just like that. And the guy said yes.

Dan Bobkoff:
It was kind of like meeting a celebrity. This guy was one of the 150 in the Corpus!

Owen Rambow:
And that was just sort of such a fascinating, weird coincidence. And it reminded me that this Corpus, which we give to our computers and run through algorithms and reduce to numbers and correlations, there really are real people at the other end. And you can meet them in Amtrak trains in Texas and we then gossiped a little bit about other people who are mentioned in the Enron Corpus who sort of almost seemed like people I know.

Dan Bobkoff:
So much of what we know about the world and how it works was somehow learned through this Corpus. So much of our technology was developed using the Corpus. But Owen Rambow is right. These aren’t just data points. These aren’t just emails. They’re real people. At one energy company, at one period of time, right before it went bust. And that raises all sorts of red flags.

Roman Mars:
More about that, after this.

[BREAK]

Dan Bobkoff:
There are two really obvious ethical issues with using the Enron emails for anything. First of all, the people who wrote them did not sign up to be part of an academic study. They did not give researchers or robots permission to comb through all of their old conversations. And we’ll get to that. But first, there’s another problem here.

Amanda Levendowski:
The biases of the people writing the emails could become the biases of the AI system that’s trained on them.

Dan Bobkoff:
Amanda Levendowski teaches at NYU and studies how bias creeps into technology. And she’s worried that a ton of our artificial intelligence is based at least in part on the emails written by 150 people at an energy company that went bust because of fraud.

Amanda Levendowski:
First of all, they’re not geographically representative. A lot of those emails were from people based in the Houston office. It’s not going to be representative in terms of corporate culture, because it was a Houston-based oil and gas company, and because it’s 150 senior executives at this company, you’re not going to have the kind of gender or racial diversity that you might expect at a different sort of company.

Dan Bobkoff:
And if you’re looking for evidence of this bias, you don’t have to look any further than the emails themselves. Like there’s one email chain where someone sends an article about Bill Clinton’s dog Buddy getting hit by a car. The Enron official writes back…

[THAT IS A SHAME FOR THE DAWG! I AM VERY HAPPY ABOUT CLINTON’S GRIEF!]

Dan Bobkoff:
There are emails about taking on the World Wildlife Fund.

[SUBJECT: WWF. REMEMBER, THIS IS THE GROUP THAT PUBLICLY ANNOUNCED THAT ENRON HAS GOTTEN AWAY WITH MURDER FOR YEARS AND WE ARE GOING TO GET THEM.]

Dan Bobkoff:
These are the emails underpinning a lot of our artificial intelligence.

Amanda Levendowski:
If there are misogynistic jokes or shows of power in particular emails, those same implicit biases can become encoded in the AI that’s trained on that Corpus. Computer scientists tend to put this another way. They call it “garbage in, garbage out.”

Dan Bobkoff:
So, who wrote this stuff? I wanted to talk to someone who worked at Enron at the time, who actually wrote some of these emails. All the names are there. And I found that a lot of them list Enron as a former employer on their LinkedIn profiles. So I started calling.

[PHONE RINGING]

Dan Bobkoff:
And I hit a lot of dead ends.

[CALL FAILING: I’M SORRY. YOU’VE REACHED A NUMBER THAT IS NO LONGER IN SERVICE OR DISCONNECTED.]

Dan Bobkoff:
While I was searching through, I met someone else who was obsessed with the emails. A guy named Sam Lavigne. He’s an artist and educator who has used the Enron emails in his own work. And his art deals with these questions. It forces people, like me, to really think about why reading through the corpus makes us feel so uncomfortable.

Sam Lavigne:
“So one of my favorite series of emails to read it from the archive is between two people who were married and they both worked at Enron. And they’re going through a divorce because she cheated on him, I think. You can read their whole sort of correspondence.”

Dan Bobkoff:
“What do you see in these emails?”

Sam Lavigne:
“Oh, you know, it’s stuff, ‘I saw you today from a distance and I thought about what we used to have and I’m so sorry. And I hope we can be friends again one day,’ you know? And you know, stuff like that. Right?”

Dan Bobkoff:
“Do you feel like you’re watching a relationship disintegrate?”

Sam Lavigne:
“Yeah. It’s also something you shouldn’t read really. You know? It’s invasive.”

Dan Bobkoff:
“Yeah. I mean there’s something like, I feel kind of dirty reading these emails even though it’s so long ago. It’s been public for so long. Yet it feels like, ‘Am I just a voyeur here?’”

Sam Lavigne:
“It is very voyeuristic.”

Dan Bobkoff:
I tried to reach that couple Sam Lavigne was talking about… to ask them how they felt… but I got a voicemail.

[PHONE RINGING]

[LEAVING VOICEMAIL: “HI, DAN BOBKOFF CALLING FROM BUSINESS INSIDER IN NEW YORK…”]

Dan Bobkoff:
Eventually, I reached the guy by email. He said he’s not angry about his emails being released, but he didn’t want to do an interview.

[MUSIC]

Dan Bobkoff:
Sam Lavigne, the artist, has been living with these emails for a few years now. Along with his colleague Tega Brain, he used the emails as the basis of an experimental art project.

Sam Lavigne:
So our project is called “The Good Life.” In the Good Life, you get the opportunity to receive all of the emails from the Enron archive, direct to your inbox, in the order that they were originally sent and with the appropriate amount of time between each email.

Dan Bobkoff:
Apparently, a few hundred people have signed up to get their actual inboxes clogged with old Enron emails. Lavigne even did it himself.

Dan Bobkoff:
“Do you have this on your main email account?”

Sam Lavigne:
“Yeah.”

Dan Bobkoff:
“It’s not filtered or anything?”

Sam Lavigne:
“No. No. So I read every single one.”

Dan Bobkoff:
“Oh my God. How much time do you spend a day on this?”

Sam Lavigne:
“Not that long because a lot of them are really short, you know? So it doesn’t take that long to read all of them. And… it’s a really interesting experience, I think. Because it’s sort of like a lot of times you’ll see the email come in and it’ll be like, ‘Meeting in room 10 in 15 minutes.’ And you’re like, ‘Oh, oh no, I’ve missed the meeting. I didn’t know about that meeting.’ Then you’ll open up the email. You’re like, ‘Oh right, right. This happened in 1999 actually. It’s okay. I didn’t actually have to go to that meeting.’”

Dan Bobkoff:
Ironically, or perhaps fittingly, some of the Enron emails get caught in Lavigne’s spam filters.

Dan Bobkoff:
“How do you feel about your emails getting caught in spam filters that might’ve been trained on the very emails that you were trying to send?”

Sam Lavigne:
“I think it’s really nice.” (laughs)

Dan Bobkoff:
“It works, I guess.”

Sam Lavigne:
“I think it’s great.”

Dan Bobkoff:
I still wanted to know how it felt to be someone whose emails were released in the Corpus, whose every word at Enron is now parsed and dissected by researchers without their consent.

[PHONE RINGING]

Dan Bobkoff:
Eventually… someone picked up.

Mitchell Taylor:
“Hello?”

Dan Bobkoff:
“Hi… is this Mitchell Taylor?”

Mitchell Taylor:
“Yes.”

Dan Bobkoff:
“Hi, Dan Bobkoff from Business Insider in New York, how are you?”

Mitchell Taylor:
“Good, how are you?”

Dan Bobkoff:
“Good, thank you, so I’m calling you for an interesting reason… “

Dan Bobkoff:
Mitch Taylor was a managing director at Enron. He’s also the guy Owen Rambow ran into on a train a few years back.

Mitchell Taylor:
“Owen Rambow?”

Dan Bobkoff:
I had to jog his memory.

Mitchell Taylor:
“Oh! Oh, oh oh! What’s his last name?”

Dan Bobkoff:
“Rambow. R-A-M-B-O-W.”

Mitchell Taylor:
“I do remember this now!”

Dan Bobkoff:
Okay so I had him on the phone—this was my big shot. I wanted to know how he felt when all these emails were dumped on the web back in 2003.

Mitchell Taylor:
“Yeah, no you would have thought some privacy advocates would have come to our defense, but at that point, being with Enron, there was no one coming to your defense. No one gave a (bleep) at that point. We were the evil empire, so everyone was happy for any bad things that happened to Enron people.”

Dan Bobkoff:
He told me that there was so much news about Enron, so much bad press about Enron back then, that the email dump didn’t really register. It was just another thing that happened. I’ve read some of Mitch Taylor’s emails by the way. Most of them… sound like work emails.

[SUBJECT: THANKS FOR THE UPDATE. WITH REGARD TO FURTHER INTERFERENCE FROM THE PUCN, AND THE COMMENT THAT THE PUCN MUST APPROVE EACH GENERATION DIVESTITURE OF SIERRA…]

Dan Bobkoff:
You get the idea…

Mitchell Taylor:
“I don’t think I’ve ever gone and looked at which ones they had… I certainly didn’t have a mistress, I didn’t have any criminal stuff going on. Now, whether I’ve passed along an inappropriate joke, I may have. I tend to be rather sarcastic at times in email, but that aspect of it has never come back to bite me in any way, at least that I’ve seen or that I’m aware of.”

Dan Bobkoff:
When I first heard about this story, I remember thinking how weird and cool it is that the emails from Enron of all companies have been so important in our lives. That the company died, but the emails live on. But the more I dug into it, the weirder I started to feel about the Corpus. I really shouldn’t be able to read about strangers’ divorces and affairs. I shouldn’t have access to someone’s daycare scheduling, even if it happened two decades ago. But on the other hand, I use Siri. I like when Gmail suggests what I was going to say so I don’t have to type it out. I think it’s nice that some real good and some human progress came out of the Enron collapse. But at what cost? I really wanted to know what Pat Wood thinks about all this now. After all, he’s the guy who released them in the first place, back when he was a regulator. And he told me he’s lost sleep over it.

Pat Wood:
Well, it was hard because I sat there and go, you know, it was just… you know, the impact on… And now that I’ve been through privacy breaches on my own and I just thought, ‘Man, I was a huge accomplice in doing that to a lot of people,’ a lot of whom live in the town where I now live. There’s probably a lot of people whose privacy was impacted significantly by what I did, who live in my area code.

Dan Bobkoff:
He said that if he could do it over again, he’d probably release a lot of the emails, but would have taken much more care to scrub out the personal stuff. To protect the people in there who were just collateral damage.

Dan Bobkoff:
“What would you say to them?”

Pat Wood:
“‘I’m sorry.’ You know, if you didn’t do anything wrong, you probably don’t have anything to be ashamed of, and if you did something wrong damn it, I got you. But for all those people in the middle who just had a normal expectation of privacy of just kind of their personal affairs. Not personal. Their business affairs and how they would be viewed. You know, I think that’s… you know, I wouldn’t want that. Do unto others as you’d have them do unto you. I wouldn’t probably want that done unto me like that.”

[MUSIC]

Dan Bobkoff:
This episode was produced by a bunch of people who had email addresses in the early 2000s, like [email protected], [email protected], and [email protected] That’s Sarah Wyman, Amy Pedulla, Jennifer Sigl, and there’s also me. I think I was [email protected] for a bit there.

Roman Mars:
That was Dan Bobkoff. The show is called “Brought to you by…” It is excellent. It is produced by Business Insider. We’ll have a link in the show notes on our website at 99pi.org. Joe Rosenberg organized this piece for us. We’ll be back with an original homegrown 99pi story next week. See you then.

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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