How can you mine email and not become corporate spyware?


Photo by DrJohn 2005

When I talk about email data mining, people worry about losing privacy. Mail messages on your work account may legally belong to the company, but most people, including myself, would feel violated if their mailboxes were suddenly revealed to all their colleagues. Even knowing that someone in management or IT was snooping would feel invasive. So how can you persuade people to adopt a tool that exposes email information?

Utility. We publish a lot of previously private information on social networks, like our birth dates, dating status, and these days even our current location. Why? Because in return we are able to connect with our friends in new ways. Any service in the enterprise needs to offer a similar tradeoff for any privacy we give up, or it won't get adopted. Many sales reps don't enter their leads into Salesforce because the benefit goes to their managers, not them.

Control. We choose what information to expose on Facebook, and who can see it. When you've got complete control over both the content and access, it's a lot easier to trust the system. You know you can make decisions to avoid embarassment or offence at a very fine level. Any tool that surfaces email information must have the same guarantee built in.

Transparency. The rules for who can see what in social networks are simple and straightforward. It's easy to have a mental model of what information will appear, and who it will reach. Any enterprise service should have the same simplicity in its protections, or users who don't understand them will overreact by hiding an unneccessary amount of data.

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