Saturday, March 24, 2007

The Web 2.0 Revolution, Email Privacy, Tequila and Handguns

"Computers have enabled people to make more mistakes faster than
almost any invention in history, with the possible exceptions of
tequila and handguns."

Mitch Radcliffe

In these days of twittering, messaging, e-mailing and blogging, collaboration technology is driving a revolution in the workplace. Unconstrained information flowing instantaneously across geographies at the touch of a button, duplicated and replicated effortlessly.

And yet, not of all us are ready for it. In the shadows of our hurried schedules, every day a muffled voice is dragged into the back alleys of our virtual world and strangled without mercy: privacy. In modern days of immediate satisfaction at the click of a button, privacy is treated like a nuisance, a lengthy bureaucracy standing in the way of immediate communication.

Years ago, governments felt compelled to regulate the privacy agreements between companies and the general public. However, within corporations, communication through e-mail or messaging is still far from the protection of a client-attorney privilege or patient-doctor confidentiality. There seems to be enough reason to introduce some of those principles into the exchanges that occur inside the workplace.

Finger pressing e-mail button Whether it is the oblivious colleague who tears the work environment apart by exposing the content of a would-be private messaging session or an aggravated peer forwarding a note to someone who will not take it well without the proper context, collaboration technology is the perfect partner in crime for virtual trespassing.

When an employee shares information with another employee, the company owns that information, no one else. There is no doubt that in most cases the source of information would gleefully allow the information to be freely shared, but not in all cases. On the one hand there is the innocent note with links to project resources, on the other hand there is the controversial note containing opinions or the unfinished design document containing transient information that will be misinterpreted outside the design team.

Because common sense isn't, it seems imperative that collaboration tools somehow incorporate privacy respect into their workflows. The more obvious requirements, in order of importance, would be:
  1. Allow the source of information to approve the sharing of that information
  2. Support generalized pre-approval for less sensitive content, such as presentations or public contact lists
  3. Support the notion of authorization expiration
  4. Allow the source of information to be notified about the sharing of its information
I do recognize that some of these suggestions may seem counter-productive at first, but I am also familiar with the horror stories that could have been preempted by simple check boxes. On the long run, the averted productivity losses caused by privacy breaches would far outweigh the cost of a couple of clicks. These simple measures would also help rebuild the endangered trust so much needed on any collaborative task, virtual or not.

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