Intelligence: Computers Reading the Troops Email


February23, 2007: The U.S. Department of Defense is quietly introducing a censoring system for email. Or trying to. Internet security is not just about keeping hackers out, but also about keeping an eye on what normally goes out. In a word, watching what's contained in email. Corporations, worried about losing valuable information via innocent, or deliberate leaks, plus exposure to lawsuits from "inappropriate" comments, want to screen outgoing email. And that they have been doing that, with increasing success, over the past few years. So the Department of Defense is testing commercial email filtering programs, to find those that can screen email for information that should not be in the email. This is tricky stuff, because email tends to be chatty, with lax spelling and grammar. The trick to making filtering work is to set up a list of words and, especially, phrases, to watch out for. Context is important as well. For years, the military has been monitoring all military email, but mainly to detect hostile espionage activities. But the new products allow automatic "reading" of email for more subtle misbehavior.

While testing of these products over the last few years has produced better and better results, it's not quite there yet. Unlike commercial firms, military units in combat zones don't have many people with extra time available for double checking the email filtering. And it has to be someone local doing the double checking. The U.S. Air Force is taking the lead in testing new products, apparently because air force bases have the manpower to monitor filtering systems, and lots of high tech secrets to keep inside. But army and marine commanders suggest that the Department of Defense just back off on this stuff until there is evidence of a real problem to be solved.




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