One Wrong Click to Armageddon

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Executives at pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly and Co. were stunned recently by a remarkably detailed article in The New York Times regarding their quiet settlement talks with the government over the popular schizophrenia drug Zyprexa. Initially, executives thought surely someone from the government was to blame, but after further investigation, they discovered the scary truth.

A member of Eli Lilly’s outside counsel team meant to e-mail a sensitive memo to a colleague, Bradford Berenson, but instead accidentally sent it to Alex Berenson, a Times reporter.

Talk about a scoop that fell into his lap.

This is a story that has been relived a thousand times since the mainstreaming of e-communication: private information accidentally sent elsewhere. From small indiscretions in the office or among friends to secret memos detailing billion-dollar payoffs, both can happen by just one or two wrong clicks. It begs the question, is it the person or the technology that’s responsible for such gaffs?

Many would argue that it’s ultimately the person who’s responsible. If someone misuses something, whether it’s a toaster or a computer, they should be held accountable, not the machine.

On an episode of the popular sitcom “The Office,” the lovable doofus boss of Dunder Mifflin, Michael Scott, had a similar but more personal e-mail blunder. Michael secretly is dating Jan, his boss, and after the two returned from a Jamaican vacation he accidentally forwarded a racy picture of the two to a warehouse employee who then sent it to the entire office. Michael quickly and comically tried to suppress and downplay the situation, but the damage had been done.

Regular viewers of the show undoubtedly see Michael’s e-mail faux pas as consistent with his dim-witted, often inappropriate personality. However, it’s unfair to characterize everyone who has ever been responsible for an e-mail misstep as stupid. It’s a phenomenon that has many levels beyond just black and white. I’ve certainly been guilty of sending an e-mail to the wrong recipient. Luckily, it was just a banal public relations inquiry and not anything personal or sensitive.

While most IT professionals would place the blame on the end users entirely for misfired e-mails, I may be taking an unpopular stance when I say it’s not entirely their fault: e-mail carriers often are too tricky for their own good nowadays.

I’m no all-knowing e-mail czar, but I do use Outlook Express and Google mail every day. When I first read the story about Eli Lilly’s e-mail debacle, I could easily put myself in the lawyer’s shoes. Presumably the lawyer typed in “Ber” for Berenson and two popped up. He or she clicked the first one, Alex Berenson and not Bradford Berenson, and thus the Times had an easy front-page bombshell story. If Alex Berenson’s first name began with “C” or any ensuing letter in the alphabet, it wouldn’t have happened.

I’m not calling on software designers to remove address auto-save. Instead, have an address book pull e-mail addresses by first and last name, not by the address itself, or don’t have one at all. Write addresses down (gasp). Auto-save makes people lazy and is the first step in computers becoming smarter than humans and taking over the world. Can’t you just hear your e-mail auto-save function talk to you when beginning to type an e-mail address? Computer: “OK, I see an ‘R,’ an ‘O,’ a ‘T.’ Got it! Jim Rothschild! It’s got to be! Just hit enter and I’ll take of the rest!”

Meanwhile, the annoyed user: “Why does Outlook think I want to send this to Jim Rothschild? I’m trying to send this to Suzy Rothenberg. Why is this machine trying to tell me what to do?!”

But I digress. Often auto-save functions can be useful in e-mailing and Web searches, but a computer is still an input-output-oriented device. Translation: Users are responsible for the information they input. For an IT professional who deals regularly with end users, isn’t a world of “the computer did it” excuses more frustrating than one where the user doesn’t have any?

Clearly e-mail auto-save isn’t going anywhere. Technology rarely moves backward when new versions of popular programs, such as e-mail, are being designed. But as long as it’s there, IT professionals can’t blame users 100 percent for sending a misdirected e-mail.

Oh, and if anyone wants to avoid “accidentally” sending me controversial, sensitive information on IT certification, please disregard the e-mail address below.

– Ben Warden, editor (at) certmag (dot) com

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