anon-mail article in LA Times

catalyst-remailer at catalyst-remailer at
Thu Mar 31 23:37:22 PST 1994

The Los Angeles Times
Thursday, March 31, 1994, p.B1, Business


Pros and Cons of Anonymous Corporate E-Mail
By Michael Schrage

    XYZ Corp. (not its real name) has a problem that's driving top
management crazy.  A rogue piece of software has appeared that lets
employees send electronic mail messages anonymously.  There's been a
rash of sexually suggestive -- and even obscene -- e-mail sent to
several female employees.  Unpopular managers have received insulting
e-mail appraisals of their style and performance.

      More ominously, several messages have been broadcast detailing
serious problems with several of XYZ's key projects.  These were
setbacks that had previously been the secret of top management but,
thanks to XYZ's global network, have now been instantly distributed
worldwide to launch hundreds of e-mail queries and thousands of water-
cooler conversations.

    Like kerosene poured on a fire, this act of e-mail anonymity has
ignited once-smoldering resentments into openly burning issues.  While
half the company is thrilled that anonymity has caused these problems
to surface for corporate-wide discussion, the other half is furious
that the leakers can't be found and punished.

    Ultimately, XYZ's top management pulled the plug on its global e-
mail system, rewrote the network software to assure that all messages
can be tracked at least two ways and issued an edict that absolutely
forbids anonymous messages.  The traffic that now flows on XYZ's
network is excruciatingly polite.

    This XYZ Corp. example is hardly fictitious; it's an unhappy
composite of real-world confrontations that recently occurred in
several Fortune 1,000 companies.  More than any other e-mail issue,
the anonymity option provokes the most heated debate in organizational
network design.

    The right to e-mail anonymity strikes at the very heart of values
that organizations either cherish or try to suppress.  Some
organizations see anonymity as a healthy, essential part of their
internal dialogue, a mechanism that promotes free and unfettered
comment.  Others see anonymity as a sleazy virtual mask that lets
corporate mischief makers and malcontents get away with cheap shots at
people who have the guts to sign their names to their messages.

    At one giant aerospace manufacturer, for example, managers are
positively grateful that their brainstorming software encourages
anonymous contributions.  "If we had to attach our names to our
suggestions, I think people would be less forthcoming," insists one
engineer there who, yes, asks no to be identified.

    The culture of the company, he argues, makes it difficult for
younger engineers to publicly make comments critical of senior
engineering decisions.  The fact that software anonymity effectively
subsidizes the existing culture rather than encouraging a more open
and honest exchange of ideas is dismissed as politically unrealistic. 
"Have you lost your mind?" the engineer asks.

    The anonymity issue becomes even more intense when one considers
the speed at which organizations are linking their e-mail networks
together in hopes of creating "virtual" corporations and accelerating
the flow of vital data.  Companies are hooking up with key customers
and suppliers.

    Suppose at the customer network, anonymous messages are permitted
and even encouraged; at the supplier, they're strictly forbidden. 
When these two companies collaborate on a project, whose e-mail
protocol should win?  Ironically, the ability to communicate via e-
mail may lead more to a hostile clash of values than to the desired
goal of better communications.  Privacy is relative; anonymity is an

    So how does the Internet, the world's biggest and best e-mail
network, handle this thorny issue?  In fact, it is "illegal" and
technically impossible to send an Internet message without a "return
address," i.e., without some sort of identifying header.

    Nevertheless, the Internet has become a hotbed of detailed,
intimate and absolutely anonymous communications.  Indeed, there is a
whistle-blowers Usenet group on the Internet -- a kind of forum -- as
well as a support group for victims of sexual abuse.  Is it in the
best interests of these participants to be readily identifiable? 
These groups depend on anonymous communications.

    Market forces have created innovations for anonymity.  Because
there is a demand for anonymity on the Internet, there is now a supply
of anonymity on the Internet.  Individuals can send their messages to
"remailers" that can strip out the headers containing the authentic
return address.

    These remailers, in turn, can send the messages on to other
remailers.  In other words, Internet remailers can "launder" messages
on the road to their intended destinations in ways that completely
obliterate their origins.

    A company that's on the Internet could use remailers to send e-
mail or post messages anonymously, but there are no known Fortune 500
companies that provide such remailers internally.

    Essentially, the rise of e-mail is forcing companies to decide
explicitly what kind of values they want their networks to embody. 
Should employees be allowed or encouraged to send anonymous e-mail? 
Or should it be strictly forbidden?  Or is there a middle way that
creates bulletin boards or other e-mail "Democracy Walls" where
individuals can safely post their comments?

    Whatever the answer to these questions, more and more
organizations are painfully becoming aware that their new networks can
raise cultural tensions just as easily as they create economic

| Michael Schrage is a writer, consultant and research associate at the  |
| Massachusetts Institute of Technology.  He writes this column          |
| independently for The Times.  He can be reached at schrage at |
| by electronic mail via the Internet.                                   |

More information about the cypherpunks-legacy mailing list