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Google Seeks 'Do-No-Discoverable-Evil' Patent 109

Posted by timothy
from the can-we-bribe-someone-to-bury-this-from-auditors? dept.
theodp writes "E-mails and other communications between employees,' explains Google in a newly-published patent application for its Policy Violation Checker invention, 'can implicate potential violations of company policy or local, state or federal law that can go unchecked by attorneys or other legal personnel.' So how can you avoid those embarrassing Goldman Sachs and Enron e-mail gaffes? Use Google's 'methods and systems for identifying problematic phrases in an electronic document'! From the patent application: 'Documents may be used as evidence in court, administrative, or other proceedings. It is in a company's best interest to minimize or eliminate policy violations and/or situations that could give rise to legal liability. It is also often in a company's best interest to be able to Pack [?] these situations. Problematic phrases include, but are not limited to, phrases that present policy violations, have legal implications, or are otherwise troublesome to a company, business, or individual.' So, if you can't Do-No-Evil, at least you can Do-No-Discoverable-Evil!"
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Google Seeks 'Do-No-Discoverable-Evil' Patent

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  • by Anonymous Coward

    Right, so if you're doing something shady, don't use email to coordinate it.

    • by Adriax (746043) on Sunday May 05, 2013 @11:33AM (#43634725)

      That's the idea of this patent. The system will let you know if what you wrote in an email about shady dealings will be incriminating, so you can re-word it.
      It's a lawyer in a box helping you facilitate shady actions with minimal discoverable evidence.

      • by DragonWriter (970822) on Sunday May 05, 2013 @01:24PM (#43635331)

        That's the idea of this patent. The system will let you know if what you wrote in an email about shady dealings will be incriminating, so you can re-word it.
        It's a lawyer in a box helping you facilitate shady actions with minimal discoverable evidence.

        Equally, it can be used to not do it; how it is used depends on the users intent, it isn't inherent in the patented method. (Although "violations of company policy", called out in the patent as well as violations of the law, are most interesting for users who are trying to control what is done to align with policy and less useful -- actively harmful to the company, in fact -- if individual email users use it for concealment.)

        Certainly, I know in many jobs I've had there would have been less cleanup for other people to do if staff that were innocently ignorant of details of company policy and/or controlling law had something reading their email that caught potential problems and pointed them in the right direction before they sent out emails to customers, contractors, etc.

        • by icebike (68054)

          You read too much into it.

          Complying with company policy may be something as simple as using the term "person hours" instead of "man hours". I'm sure you can imagine a thousand similar examples in virtually any line of business.

          • You read too much into it.

            Complying with company policy may be something as simple as using the term "person hours" instead of "man hours". I'm sure you can imagine a thousand similar examples in virtually any line of business.

            Icebike, you are fined five credits for violations of the verbal morality statute

            • Well, at least Slashdotters are in general not in danger of violating the statute against exchange of body fluids. :-)

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        That's the idea of this patent. The system will let you know if what you wrote in an email about shady dealings will be incriminating, so you can re-word it.
        It's a lawyer in a box helping you facilitate shady actions with minimal discoverable evidence.

        And it is very telling that it comes from Google.

      • by icebike (68054) on Sunday May 05, 2013 @03:15PM (#43635985)

        That's the idea of this patent. The system will let you know if what you wrote in an email about shady dealings will be incriminating, so you can re-word it.
        It's a lawyer in a box helping you facilitate shady actions with minimal discoverable evidence.

        Bullshit.

        Go read the article instead of the hopelessly biased summary.

        This is more about not letting casual joking references slip into official communication due to fact that future readers will not be privy the the reference and will substitute their own prejudiced interpretation, much like you have done above.

        Its easy to use every day office language in an email and have it horribly miss interpreted by people unfamiliar with the jargon or the context.

        I was once called on the carpet for saying in an email to one of my programmers something like "Mrs Jones has reported extraneous characters appearing on the end the report lines, so be sure you clear out the buffer when you next look at her programs." Mrs Jones saw this and complained up the chain that I was making derogatory remarks about her prodigious girth.

        • by idunham (2852899)

          +1 insightful.

          There's also checking what level of confidentiality is involved (claim 18), what appears to be a buzzword killer (claim 16), alerting the company (claim 15), referring the employee to a company policy web page (claim 20) and some other such things.

          It looks like this might be what Google needed for a certain email that got dragged out in the Oracle case.
          It would also be useful for any developer of business email clients or office suites...

        • ... but all to often, such bantering is indeed refering to real shady deels, and the joke is on the public at large which thinks that their bank (or whatever) is having their best interest in mind when dealing with their money.

          The fact that after "discovery" of such e-mails, the joke is on the banks is actually a good thing!

          So, all this software will achieve is just make those indelicates more careful about making sure that the butts of their jokes can't hear them...

      • by K. S. Kyosuke (729550) on Sunday May 05, 2013 @03:25PM (#43636039)

        The system will let you know if what you wrote in an email about shady dealings will be incriminating, so you can re-word it.

        Google Clippy: "You seem to be writing a criminal conspiracy proposal. Can I help you with the wording?"

    • by jhoegl (638955)
      What is funny is, this has been around for a while.
      This is not patentable.
      • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

        by Anonymous Coward

        Nor are rounded corners and a generic CD icon with a musical note, but here we are...

      • The supreme court just reaffirmed this, in that, if you can't prove the gov't is listening in on your phone calls, opening your mail, hacking your computers, whatever, you can't sue them to stop.

        Of course, in this case, the gov't is extra special, in that whatever evidence you do have, the gov't just declares it a "national security secret", and poof, the evidence disappears.

    • by Hentes (2461350)

      At least not plaintext email. I guess Google staff is knowledgable enough to encrypt their sensitive messages.

      • by Anonymous Coward

        We're talking about corporate e-mail. The usual scenario is that the corporation is being sued and must respond to a court order to produce all documents related to a particular subject. Whether or not those documents are encrypted is irrelevant -- decrypted copies must be produced or there will be serious legal repercussions.

    • by pnutjam (523990)
      or don't send it through the companies mail servers.
  • by girlinatrainingbra (2738457) on Sunday May 05, 2013 @10:32AM (#43634363)
    Clippy: Do you want to really say that and be sued?
    .
    It's the same as what happens when there is "open" government. As soom as there are laws and guidelines that governmental and departmental emails must be available for public perusal, suddenly all of the email channels are just filled with happy fluff and declarations of meeting times only and perhaps some birthday greetings. All matters of substance suddenly are done only by direct telephone contact or person-to-person meetings with no notes taken that could be used as evidence or found in discovery. Notice how few top level politicians directly use email, or if they do they tend to use private accounts to conduct gov't business even if that's technically and legally a no-no.
    .
    So google is making a tool to warn people as they type that what they type could be "construed" as a bad statement. It's like Clippy popping up to tell you in a big brother voice "It's looks like you're making a sexually harassing statement or a statement that could put the company at fault. Do you really want to say that?"
    • by KGIII (973947) on Sunday May 05, 2013 @10:49AM (#43634457) Journal

      I'm not really sure that this is even something they can patent? Isn't their prior art?

      I seem to recall that the various companies (like banks) have programs in place that do stuff like automatically redact and prohibit things like emailing a document that contains a social security number. Using the above example of SSNs, I seem to recall that it would redact SSNs by changing 000-00-0000 to ***-**-**** or the likes?

      I didn't read the patent application but examining emails and other documents for risky content that increase liability seems to have been long-since done and fairly run-of-the-mill considering that it is already in use and has been for some time.

      • by truman1 (2915211) on Sunday May 05, 2013 @11:00AM (#43634513)

        Using the above example of SSNs, I seem to recall that it would redact SSNs by changing 000-00-0000 to ***-**-**** or the likes?

        Interestingly, this same thing works on Slashdot for your password. If you accidentally write your password to a comment, Slashcode will hide it.

        My password is ******. See?

        • by JustOK (667959)

          My password is hunter2. See?

        • by KGIII (973947)

          ******

          Holy crap!!! It works. That's neat!

        • by Anonymous Coward

          Really? Let me try:
          ********
          Wow!, That's great!
          I've always been worried that someone would guess my ********!
          Now, I know my ******** is completely safe! Even if I accidentally mention that my ******** is ********!
          Slashcode is awesome!

      • by BSAtHome (455370)

        This is a typical "human-replaced-by-machine" type of patent, which has been struck down before.

        The whole process is nothing more than a lookup of phrases and match against policy. This has been in existence for a long time in written (dead tree version) communication. Adding "database" or "computer" in your application does not make this something new. However, that detail seems to be at a loss at the USPTO.

        • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

          by Anonymous Coward

          I work in a company that sells user-configurable deep inspection appliances. One of the first things shown on introductory course to the products was writing a fingerprint that searched for keywords on email traffic, and which was used to terminate a connection before such keywords would have reached the recipient. Although network intrusion prevention systems are mostly designed to detect computer security threats, every even minimally flexible system has this feature, and it has been demonstrated like th

          • Detecting context (Score:4, Interesting)

            by DragonWriter (970822) on Sunday May 05, 2013 @01:32PM (#43635385)

            I think the key new thing that most people are missing is the first phrase after "comprising" in claim 1: "detecting a context of the electronic document", and the fact that pretty much everything in the patent (including the identification of whether particular phrases are problematic) depends on the detected context. Its not simple blind phrase checking.

            The patent system is patently rotten if Google is granted this patent, and they actually succeed in using it to limit competition.

            The patent system is patently rotten independently of that, but most of the arguments being used to dismiss the novelty of this invention in this thread appear to be missing the key point in the method.

            • by KGIII (973947)

              That might make it different enough. I admit(ed) to going off the summary entirely and not reading the patent application. You have taken a look it seems.

              I recall an article discussing something along those lines (not blind find/replace or similar) in eWeek a number of years ago. I am unable to find the article but it was about a hospital and was when HIPPA compliance was either just enacted or was soon to be enforced. They were contextually examining outgoing emails for sensitive data and either refusing t

            • As long as it doesn't state what "context" means exactly, it might well be something like "email sent to a non-company address". And even otherwise I'm sure the "context detection" is nothing more than yet another keyword search or Bayesian filter.

        • by KGIII (973947)

          That's what the summary seemed to indicate. I was too lazy (I still am) to go read the application. At the very least the end result is something that has been done time and time again and I doubt that they can come up with any way of doing it that is novel and not obvious. Minimally, assuming any accuracy in the summary, there's prior art that would prevent this I'd imagine.

          Seems strange to me... Google has been doing some odd things lately, I wonder what their grand scheme is. It used to be that they want

      • by perrin (891)

        "I didn't read the patent application but"...

        Slashdot should institute an automatic rejection of any post that contains this phrase. Usually what is follows is devoid of any value based on a misunderstanding of what the patent actually says.

        Hey, I should patent that idea!

        • by KGIII (973947)

          Next thing you'll be expecting us to read the articles...

          And, well, it would be pretty boring with just one or two posts per story.

      • I'm not really sure that this is even something they can patent? Isn't their prior art?

        I seem to recall that the various companies (like banks) have programs in place that do stuff like automatically redact and prohibit things like emailing a document that contains a social security number. Using the above example of SSNs, I seem to recall that it would redact SSNs by changing 000-00-0000 to ***-**-**** or the likes?

        I didn't read the patent application but examining emails and other documents for risky content that increase liability seems to have been long-since done and fairly run-of-the-mill considering that it is already in use and has been for some time.

        You and the mods who pushed this to +5 insightful don't understand that prior art is about specifics, not "hey, didn't some guy in tennessee once do something kinda like part of that?"

        • by KGIII (973947)

          Could you elaborate? I'm quite willing to learn.

          If there's prior art then what does it take to make it patentable? I've now taken a gander at the patent application and it doesn't appear to do anything different than systems described in the past. The only things novel that I see are "as the businesses glow" (glowing businesses is novel) and presenting the information in-line which seems obvious to me.

          What specifics need to be changed? How much needs to be changed?

      • I didn't read the patent application but examining emails and other documents for risky content that increase liability seems to have been long-since done and fairly run-of-the-mill considering that it is already in use and has been for some time.

        That's the purpose (which isn't patentable even if it is novel), not the method (which is what is patented). The fact that the purpose is served by some existing solution doesn't mean that a new method to acheive the purpose isn't patentable.

        • by KGIII (973947)

          Thank you. I posted an additional question up above this one. I've read the patent and it doesn't look all that novel except for having "businesses glow" (really) and showing the possible conflict in-line. The latter seems obvious to me and the part about the glowing businesses (I'm not making that up) is probably a typographical error. The method (check a database, find conflict, notify user of conflict) appears to be just doing what other folks have been doing since at least the start of HIPAA. I suppose

          • Really? The GOOG will do new improved special context searching to give you legal bulletproofing, but their spellchecker isn't good enough to notice that "glow" isn't actually the right word in that context?
      • by Shavano (2541114)
        Man, I wouldn't be able to refer to components by their part numbers.
        • by KGIII (973947)

          I have to assume that it isn't something you'd have enabled if that were the case. I can't think of any reason to use such an application either though I suppose if it could review forum posts before I submit them and correct my usage of their/there/they're it would have some value for me.

      • Yes, there are existing systems – but there is a ongoing arms race out there. Glanced at the patent and I can’t find anything special about it, but it was only a glance.

        New technologies come out. Social Media is a major headache in my line of work because all written client communication must be kept for 7 years.

        I know of consultants who claim their software will detect people who are likely to commit fraud based on automatic textual analyst. (looking for things that indicate financial stress, s

        • by KGIII (973947)

          I'd say, "Well find out." But, well, the USPTO seems to be willing to rubber stamp a bunch of crap and the trend doesn't seem to indicate that it will be improving.

      • I'm not really sure that this is even something they can patent? Isn't their prior art?
        ... I didn't read the patent application...

        Only on Slashdot would this be moderated as insightful.

        Here's a real insight for you: when someone, such as Subby, paraphrases something to make it easier to understand, the result will be obvious by definition. Toyota's Prius hybrid is "like a Model T that can also use a battery", both of which are well known, so its planetary transmission is obvious, right? Or iRobot's packbot is "like a giant dog, but metal" so its radar terrain tracking and movement algorithms are obvious, right?

        Paraphrasing is like l

      • Yes, that's part of what DLP (Data Loss Prevention) products and services do. Violations can be handled in alot of different ways: custom masks as you mention, quarantining the email and/or notifying a supervisor, bouncing the email with a request to clean up the violation before sending, even locking out the person who did the violation. These products also take aim at more malicious types of violations: like taking an Excel of customer socials and sending it to yourself in Gmail.
    • by Charliemopps (1157495) on Sunday May 05, 2013 @10:57AM (#43634493)

      This sort of things already long gone. My company archives all email after 90days and deletes it after 1 year. Then they gave us a "chat client" for the majority of the company and an internal IRC channel for the IS department. So naturally everyone moved to those instead of email. Saving emails locally is punishable by termination and they have scripts that actively search for emails, archives and PST files and delete them.

      My guess is, a lot of companies are doing this, and it's bad for Googles business model. So if they can get legal departments to trust that long term email storage isn't just a huge, decades long archive of casual conversations that can be subpenaed, taken out of context and generally used to sink any future case they may have to fight, then maybe they can get business to start using it again. The big problem with email is that courts have seemed to taken it as official correspondence or official policy if it's in an email rather than the casual conversation that it really is. Just because some bottom level manager says X policy is designed to rip people off does not mean that manager has any clue what they're talking about. Yes there are bad companies out there, but there are plenty of decent companies that have gotten caught up in huge legal battles over emails that certainly weren't nearly as big a deal as they were made out to be in court.

      • by girlinatrainingbra (2738457) on Sunday May 05, 2013 @11:01AM (#43634517)
        That's a good point you make. Google needs to keep people using email so that google can keep harvesting information out of the email contents, thus it's in google's best interest to keep email looking like a safe venue for communication. I had not thought of that particular aspect. I know that my mom is very circumspect about putting any health related things into email, even though her hospital is pushing her to use email to communicate with patients. She only wants to use it for confirming appointment times and changing appt times to ensure that she doesn't accidentally leak any HIPAA covered private patient health information.
      • by Kongming (448396)

        My company archives all email after 90days and deletes it after 1 year. Then they gave us a "chat client" for the majority of the company and an internal IRC channel for the IS department.

        That sounds absolutely terrible for productivity, consistency, and internal accountability. Not being able to search for (or needing to meticulously save and organize mysefl) things like instructions, contacts, and details sent in past emails would seriously hinder my ability to do my job. I am very glad that I do not work for that kind of company.

        • Its actually not that bad. Since you know the system, and you know email is not a reliable way to store your data (and honestly never should have been in the first place) you start storing things in proper ways. On an internal wiki or normal folders on the network. It's actually done a lot to improve how well we document things because everyone knows they'll not be able to dig up 3yr old emails to figure it out. Those emails may have been satisfactory for the individual keeping them but they did no good to

      • I can't wait for the first law suit that requires access to all company email for the last three years.

    • by Anonymous Coward

      Making the bad guys stop using electronic communication is a positive thing. It makes it more difficult for those people to organize their evil schemes. On top of that, sometimes one of the mooks is going to screw up by putting something in email that he shouldn't have. Efforts to use private emails is good too, because it allows you to identify and punish the people who are trying to circumvent the system - previously, those people would have just used normal email with no issue. It's an all-around win for

    • As soom as there are laws and guidelines that governmental and departmental emails must be available for public perusal, suddenly all of the email channels are just filled with happy fluff and declarations of meeting times only and perhaps some birthday greetings. All matters of substance suddenly are done only by direct telephone contact or person-to-person meetings with no notes taken that could be used as evidence or found in discovery.

      I had a boss that would intentionally do this - anything that could potentially get him in trouble with higher ups was relayed in person. It's highly annoying when you can't get project information or task details in writing.

  • Google Delete
    • Google Shut Up
      Since it warns people they wrote something bad before they hit send. Red underline for spelling mistakes. Green underline for grammar mistakes. Purple underline for homophobia. Gold underline for fraud.
  • If Google have that information, US government agencies have access to it as well, and will use it, even if you don't belong to any company. And definately would call evil any patent/company that basically forbids joking [theblaze.com]
    • First, you clearly didn't bother looking at the linked information. The patent is about notifying the user when they type something in order to give them the chance to reconsider what they're writing. There's nothing stored at that point, which is the entire point of the patent; notifying users that they're about to violate company policy before the email gets stored and becomes a legal liability to the company.

      Second, if Google's patented algorithm had been in place and had "destroy America" in the dicti

  • For a second there I thought they were patenting not being evil as a business process or something and I thought "Damn! Guess I'm just going to have to keep being evil!" But they're really just trying to patent not being caught at it. Not getting caught is actually pretty easy as long as you don't have dumbasses in your company. So maybe Google should invent a technology to jettison the dumbasses in your company into the sun! Except, I suppose that would be pretty evil. Maybe I should patent that! It'd go n
    • by Nerdfest (867930)

      Someone not quite so suspicious would also envision this being used to catch any problems early so they could be stopped before they become a big problem; a dumb-ass detection system if you will.

    • by fermion (181285)
      Pretty much. Arthur Anderson, Enron accountants, were toast because they were dumb. They did not have a policy for data retention. If they, for instance, had a policy for deleting email every year, then they would have been able to continue to delete even when rumors of a federal investigation reached them until that investigation became formal. As it was they panicked.

      But really this has nothing to do with that. It has to do with people treating email like phone conversations, which are generally no

      • I am going to have to disagree with you here. Enron went down because the company had been hollowed out, not because of any evidence.

        The charges that were levied and stuck against Arthur Anderson was the destruction of evidence. There were cleared of most of the other charges (after they had closed shop.) No, what Arthur Anderson did was lazy shoddy work, helping their clients maneuver the grey areas. They would have been in a lot better shape if they had not shredded the evidence.

        And the accountants at Enr

  • by Anonymous Coward

    and I will find something in them to have him hanged.

    The problem with constant surveillance and logging is that it doesn't matter what you say. It just takes coming to the attention of someone in power to get yourself fired, bankrupted, imprisoned or worse.

    And that is why anonymity is the only defense against power. As long as the powerful people think they need to maintain a facade of "legitimacy" then they can't punish people at random. And that is why powerful interests are working so hard to remove t

  • So, if you can't Do-No-Evil, at least you can Do-No-Discoverable-Evil!"

    If the policy is evil, this would become the Do-No-Discoverable-Good patent, and we have enough of that already.

  • Not sure how well their invention works when the have mistakes in the patent. Maybe they should have a person read these things.

    As businesses glow, the number of documents in a business rises exponentially

  • > Never talk when you can nod and never nod when you can wink and never write an
    > e-mail, because it's death. You're giving prosecutors all the evidence we need.

    http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Eliot_Spitzer [wikiquote.org]

  • I am all for it. I would like to see unencrypted and/or server-based communications go away completely.

    • Grammar Nazi are nothing... Have you worked with a Policy Nazi? Or some annoying twit who recites company policy or P.C. norms all the time?

      At least Microsoft isn't doing it... We'd get Clippy the friendly policy helper who'd pop up just before we send each email with suggestions... "Can I help you rephrase that?" "Are you sure? HR will be notified..."

      Me, I envision a cold war communist characterization -with a Russian accent: "Comrade, don't raise suspicions! Rethink the phrase..."

  • Google's policy has always been "don't be evil". Not "do no evil". This is substantially different. It gives them a lot of leeway to do some evil stuff, and still be subjectively non-evil.

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