E-mail offers a look inside Enron

Enron correspondence has been online for years, although in a not particularly user-friendly format. Now anyone can easily sift through the mountain of messages - business dealings, personal exchanges, mindless blather and, of course, the dirty jokes - thanks to an e-mail security company called InBoxer. You can give the thing a whirl at www.enronemail.com. There's even a contest for digging up the best specimens.

It's become perhaps the most famous and picked-over pile of e-mail in history: a half-million messages to and from 176 Enron employees made public as a result of legal proceedings spawned by the company's self-immolation.

The correspondence has been online for years, although in a not particularly user-friendly format. Now anyone can easily sift through the mountain of messages - business dealings, personal exchanges, mindless blather and, of course, the dirty jokes - thanks to an e-mail security company called InBoxer. You can give the thing a whirl at www.enronemail.com. There's even a contest for digging up the best specimens.

InBoxer CEO Roger Matus makes no bones about the site being a "shameless marketing plug" for the company's InBoxer Anti-Risk Appliance, which is expected to ship by month's end. He says the site has received "tens of thousands" of hits, thanks in part to being featured on CNN.

The Enron search exercise is great fun that can waste as much of a workday as you're willing to lose. And I've got to warn you about something else, too: There are real people with real lives in there and you never know when one might pop up to slap that voyeuristic grin off your face. My dose was a mother telling a friend she has just learned from a doctor that her pregnancy is in serious jeopardy. She tries to lighten the news with an amusing anecdote about the doctor telling her husband that the crisis would mean no more running for the wife and a suspension of "relations" for the couple. The euphemism - which hubby didn't understand - was made necessary in the doctor's mind by the presence of the couple's young child. "You had to be there," Mom writes, by which time you'll wish you weren't.

Guilt trips aside, there's no denying the amusement value of rummaging through the e-mail of others. Many of the jokes are old chestnuts, but there are a few that had me snickering. Much of the business-related correspondence is mundane or indecipherable, but others will leave you wondering how the company managed to keep the cards from collapsing as long as it did.

Being a political junkie, my favorite e-mail had to do with the relationship between indicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff and indicted former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas). There's been much chattering about whether Abramoff was or was not a bipartisan influence merchant, and whether DeLay was or was not cozy with Abramoff. These apparently were not open questions at Enron in 2000: "Abramoff is arguably the most influential and effective GOP lobbyist in Congress," reads the e-mail. "He also is very close to DeLay and could help enormously on that front."

InBoxer wants such indiscretions - and the trouble they can generate - to help sell Anti-Risk Appliances, which are designed to give corporate legal and human resources departments a dashboard look at what's floating around and leaving the company via e-mail. Matus believes his product can succeed by offering broad coverage over a variety of e-mail threats - and by underselling the competition.

"Part of our goal is to help with employee privacy," he says.

This seems like an odd claim, given the product by definition checks up on everyone's e-mail, but Matus does have a point. Much of the e-mail generated by a workforce is personal, benign and none of any employer's business (28% in the case of Enron, InBoxer says). Carving that chunk out of the mail stream and away from the eyes of lawyers and HR not only affords employees a measure of privacy but also drains the pool of potentially problematic e-mail down to a more manageable level.

At least that's the theory. My guess is that InBoxer customers will have a challenge selling this point to their workers, most of whom will see nothing but Big Brother.

My inbox is nowhere near as interesting. The address is buzz@nww.com.

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