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The limits of P2P

AltaVista’s new scanning software raises serious privacy concerns. 6/14 ReleVents hed: The limits of P2P dek: AltaVista’s new scanning software raises serious privacy concerns. By James Mathewson

The idea of being able to search an entire LAN’s information, including what’s only on other users’ hard drives and e-mail seems like a good thing. How many times have you tried to find a report or e-mail, only to realize that it’s stuck on someone’s hard drive, and he or she is on vacation. And, according to a news story on our site yesterday, that software is readily available. AltaVista just announced that its new scanning software and three other vendors already have similar products on the market.

But just because there are cases in which a software application can be helpful doesn’t mean the software is a good thing. A couple of aspects of this technology should give users pause, and should temper the choices made by early-adopting MIS directors.

There is a raging debate right now as to what extent employees ought to feel like their computer use at work should be private. Some say managers should view employees and their computers as black boxes. All that matters is the inputs and outputs the employee processes. This seems the best attitude if you want to keep your smartest people. Needless to say, if you take this approach, you will be very uncomfortable with letting just anyone scan anyone else’s hard drives, no matter how valuable the information is.

Others say there is just too much liability in employee behavior to allow employees to have a sense of privacy (hostile work environments, downtime, etc.). Extremists in this camp say Employees have neither ownership over nor privacy in their computing environments. They suggest that employee computers should be like kiosks. Some of these folks even use sophisticated keyboard trapping techniques to monitor keystrokes. If this is your information technology position, privacy should be no problem. But there are other problems lurking in the weeds.

A lot of company information is private. Managers need to hold a lot of stuff in confidence. Though AltaVista’s software allows for some administrative control over sensitive information, from what I can tell, it is not very fine grained. A manager can request that certain hard-drive partitions and e-mail folders be off limits to the company, but what if he or she forgets and accidentally leaves a draft of a warning letter on the desktop, in full view of anyone at the company?

Also, management often has secrets it can’t justify, such as a senior manager who’s an alcoholic and whose place on the management team is protected by his or her cronies. The farther up you go in some companies, the more of these kinds of politics come into play. I suspect that managers in these companies will hide all their documents and correspondence, and suddenly the most valuable information in the company will not be available to the peer-to-peer scanning system.

The bottom line is that technology can often seem like a panacea in theory, but it can have negligible value in practice. I’m not saying that the new AltaVista software won’t work for anyone; it just won’t work for everyone. And managers need to consider the human as well as the technological components of their companies before rolling out software like this.

James Mathewson is editorial director of ComputerUser magazine and ComputerUser.com.

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