Enron collapsed nearly 20 years ago, but chances are something you use today was affected by emails sent by 150 of the company's top employees. These emails — about meetings and energy markets but also affairs, divorces, and fraud — have helped create new technologies, fight terrorism, and added to our understanding of how we communicate.
You’ve Got Enron Mail!
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This is an unofficial transcript meant for reference. Accuracy is not guaranteed.
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This is ninety nine percent, invisible, I'm roman Mars.
Your online activity creates tons and tons of day and that data is valuable.
Entire sectors of the economy or build on this principle,
There is one dataset that has proven to be so incredibly valuable because
it was available for free
anyone to use, and this data
was gathered during the investigation of a crime.
This is the story of the Enron emails that were collected as the government was building the case to prosecute the company. That became the poster child for corporate crime
But since then, these emails have helped create new technologies, fight terrorism and
into our understanding of how we communicate isn't it.
The whole story- and when I heard it on business, insiders brought to you by podcast, formally called household names.
damn. I was reported that since they did such a solar job, I thought we just present their story to you.
it is fascinating, you're going to love it
to guide you through this twisted tale of crime and data, here's Dan Babcock. Imagine your working for a big company like
number seven on the fortune, five hundred list
and its around the year. Two thousand there's no facebook, no gmail we're not thinking that much about privacy and then the company you work for going bust. Instead,
tat, cooler fashion. What was the corporate fraud cases since shockwaves across Houston and the entire country? The fall of Enron, congressional hearings begin this morning in the Enron investigation and then some
regulator in Washington releases, your work emails all of them. So, all of a sudden, a lot of things in your life just became public
like July, twenty Eightth, nineteen nineteen, nine one. Forty two p m attached are the above reference documents. Hard copies will follow, but
SAM, perhaps less routine business dealings. Subject: Bree Turks are further insulate. The call group
You from any claim that Enron misuse the information. I suggest that you transfer the information to me. I will hold it for safe keeping and some cliche bad workplace behaviour. No subject.
having to New Orleans this weekend to do some party, no Europa, just slugs in the quarter and, let's not forget.
I sank nineties chain, emails, hope you're having a pleasant first,
nineteen. Ninety nine thought it would forward this on top twenty two sides. Are you ve had too much of the nineties twenty two cleaning?
The dining area means there were even some exchanges with coworkers there really shouldn't have been in your work in boats no subject. Let me know when you're leaving are we leaving? Probably in about thirty to forty five minutes. Fuck me out, I give you a big black cats Brower, more I'll give you all you want
The emails you just heard read by actors are real emails. They're, just a few of the hunter
Two thousand sent around the year two thousand by some of Enron's highest ranking employees
and when these emails became public for the first time there was a database of thought.
of real email sent by real people that was available to the public and researchers and at least one past us. But these emails aren't just a curiosity there now
just a time capsule about something you used today was touched by these emails. They become a huge part of all
Business insider in stature- this is household me ranch. You know stories you downtime Tampa, come down
Enron collapsed because greed and corruption and fraud, but the emu
Enron. Employees sent in received I've had an astounding after a white paper. You
to create SIRI and develop spam filtering and artificial intelligence. They ve helped us understand gender in power, but at what cost
happens when so much of our technology is based on the writings of some fallen energy taxes.
The emails have been released in the first place.
Enron is pretty much shorthand for corporate scandal, but back in the night,
These Enron was an energy trading company based in Houston. It bought, sold and traded natural gas and electricity, and also apparently pulp and paper, but the thing and run is really famous, for is how it collapsed.
In two thousand one. It was the biggest bankruptcy ever at that point. It look suspicious because the camp
who was telling everyone it was profitable and successful. Then out of nowhere, it went bust. The SSC investigated prosecutors, pounced, a number of top executives, went to pray
for fraud, guilty verdict and the biggest case of corporate fraud and history. Lawyers for Jeffrey Skilling and Kenneth Way through around complicated notions about margin, calls in short selling, but the reason we have access to thousands
and runs emails is because of something else something
and run did in California.
California became one of the first states to deregulate its energy markets in the mid nineties. The idea was to introduce market forces in competition
You know, lower prices and such and run had lobbied hard for this.
After deregulation came into play. Mysteriously California, star
experiencing serious energy shortages and whenever that happened, and
in some other companies
coincidentally rate in a whole bunch of cash, the worst one with physical withholding, so you just say: I'm not gonna run my power plant more pat wood was an energy regulator with firm, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. It was his job to help investigate this. Now, no one was done enough to say I'm not gonna run it, so I can make money off of scarcely price, but that's what happens when you don't run your power plant, which they were also get it to do, would says power. Suppliers would overplay maintenance issues, exaggerate problem, so they could shut down their plants. What color, smart engineers can actually go question that the minute you really got me I had to get people under Oath Roy for drivers out there were other tricks and run with by power in California, move it in Iraq.
And then sell it back at a profit and run was making bank, but by the second half of two thousand, the tricks turned into a full on energy crisis. Electricity prices in California shut up eight hundred percent. At one point, there are rolling blackouts affecting more than a million people now pat, what is a free market sky? He was all for deregulating California's energy market, but what Enron did with that? Freedom is not what he had in mind when he was promoting free markets. I'm a big, passionate defender of competition, but I'm worthless force against people who you know why
set up so firm investigated and run, and the market manipulators and through the investigation got tons of documents like these
Most describing in detail how Enron plan to manipulate the California markets to make lots of money, and there
pretty shocking- I mean you have for one who loves competition and markets. It just kind of made me nauseated cuz. I thought man is this, because this, the enterprise that I helped create was this house of cards. I mean this is this: is ridiculous doll box down the hall and showed it to my other three,
I've got a problem with this during the investigation? Pat would infer were mostly
just on amendments, but they also
a whole lot of emails from Enron, huge it with thousands of battle. Remember it's terrible.
Whatever the word after Tara, but it was huge
What were you finding in these amounts that you wanted people to see yet embody five percent of a more about nothin that we rent? But there were it's hard to read. I mean it with huge amounts aim out of a better question was here. There might be something that somebody fun here from review stuff that we might have missed fur cap to decide what to do with all this data in two thousand three pat wood was past about what Enron had done, so we kept
thinking about transparency, just put it all out there and let the public see with a company did but I'm sure behind the scenes. It must have been a hard decision to decide whether to release all these emails. With all this personal information and
irrelevant yet wearing honest our tag, Yardley Banba, that if she did not, was not frightened centre as much as I as much as it would be today, for example, so Pat would, in the four commissioners, made a fateful decision,
they just dump the entire email archive on the internet or the
run emails about gas trading, a meeting, scheduling and also the device
citizen affairs and talk of parties. It was all their I've heard different versions of what happened next, some people say the emails where
cleaned up that someone went through and got rid of social security numbers in bank account info and stuff, like that. Other
people say and run employees were actually given a chance to go through and flag things. They thought should be rejected, but either way Pat would emits firm, didn't try that hard to clean the emails up and then after they were public. You just gotta forgot about the emails until I caught a few weeks ago
and so what did you think would happen when you put all these emails out in the world? Never dreamed, I mean when you told me when we talk last week when you tell me what had gone on, I mean I can't tell you how much I've been looking around on the web search. You point to me in that direction there so much on the web about this information, and I had no idea what will come of it
The key males took on a life of their far beyond by anyone. It and or fur, could have imagined artificial intelligence voice assistance,
counter terrorism. Software all have routes in the Enron emails.
After fur, released the Enron emails back in two thousand three. I just gotta sat there, even though they were public, no one was really reading them because they were a mess.
Like imagine you log in to your email, you need to find one specific message except there's: no search function. You can't organ
is, by date or sender or subject line there,
bam everywhere. That's what the Enron emails were like and there were like half a million of them.
But this is where the Enron email strange after life begins. First, some academics bought the emails from fuck it
came known as the Enron Corpus corpus. By the way is my new favorite word: the Enron Corpus costs ten grand. Then the researchers got to work cleaning it up,
bring it down in organizing it into something that could be catalogued and searched and studied, and then they went wild. They wrote papers ran experiments
invented whole new areas of research like network science,
my name's pigeon Anderson and amended system, professor in the communication department. At you see allay my research focuses
social networks and collaboration, we called Peter Lumber, Syn,
does he was actually our producers, Sarah women's professor, yet, and that is a first day of class. I will never forget what happened. It was
so cool like we all came in and on the board. He had projected a network that was made up of the Enron emails, and so what we're looking at is a bunch of dots, basically arranged in a pattern and every dot represents
he mail address in the corpus, and you can tell so much about an RON just from looking at this map Dan, I quote, some of the dots are bigger than other dots, which means that they are getting more Emil's. So are those the power
people yeah, and you can also tell them like some people are getting waymore emails than they're sending, which is
so kind of indicative of them being more important, maybe but then the really cool.
Like the reason, I still remember this class four years after the fact is that if you like, take a step back and just look at the entire
network, you see something, that's really interesting. What's so the way the map is,
organised, you can see projects because you know like people at work, will email back and forth when their working on something like we do with this episode exam.
But the thing is at Enron: they were not making podcast to have some people were action.
doing some really sketchy illegal things and on this map you can
sleep visually, see the difference like the projects that were totally above board and fine look completely different from the ones that worship
I guess the way I would describe it. If you look at the network where people are talking about like it
illicit or illegal project it looked like a really type ball with a few little spikes sticking out of it
and so what that showing that, like for those illegal projects, that the communication is really concentrated among us
or of individuals and they're, not
sharing that information or dispersing information about their project with other part
The organization- and this is the best part, because a computer has identified this. It's like a magic trick. The computer just has all of the data that, in the corpus,
That, like in and of itself, doesn't really make any sense to any one in it just looks like a huge mouse, but then, once you,
run. An algorithm on that data. It
like shining a black light on all of the corruption that was happening at Enron, like you can just see it laid out, bear in front of you in this network. Yes, this is clearly very useful to people for a lot.
yeah and there is so much cool stuff. That's happening with this technology, like people are using it to predict how viruses spread through populations, because the software can identify the people within a group who are most likely to spread some
to the rest of the group fast so like the guy Who'S- is going around shaking lots people's hands while like show up in this algorithm right,
we one of the most interesting applications of this technology is that it's actually being used to identify terrorist cells so like. If you have phone records from a group of people, you can run these algorithms on those phone records and they can detect. These kind of
abnormal patterns of communication- and you can see where the terms
Salazar, okay, so
technology we developed using
Emails from Enron is now
used to fight terror, yeah it's being used for all kinds of stuff.
The Enron emails have been a huge opportunity for researchers, like Sarah Professor, their publicly available there's, no copyright, research,
just can swap them between institutions, because no one owns them, but they have also been this really big.
for any research or technology that involves language, because these emails, this corpus
is a rare example of unfiltered, uncensored, totally organic human communication, so the bankruptcy of Enron was really wonderful. Stroke of luck for researchers interested
conversation. This is Owen Rambo. He works at him.
Artificial intelligence company called elemental cognition used to tee,
Colombia, he's been a part of lots of different research projects involving the Enron emails and a lot of them involve using the corpus to train computers to understand human language is unique.
There's nothing quite like it and it's real. You know these are real. People were conversing not in order to create data for linguists, but in order to achieve-
their goals, whatever it was here. Some work related goal urges tell each other jokes,
or whatever before
the Enron emails. Researchers like Rambo mostly had to work with stilted conversations or text from old newspapers. One typical example is that people earth
are brought into a lab and play a game against each other and engage in conversation as part of the game playing so they're real conversations, but the very limited and they're, not natural
the occurring, but these Enron emails or what people really say to one another, especially when they don't think anyone is reading over their shoulders and they ve taught Rambo and computers a lot about how humans communicate like based on syntax and word choice. You can predictive an email, sender is male or female Abbas or an underling bosses right, shorter emails, mailboxes tend to write direct emails. Like give me the report by Monday, female bosses
tend to say things like. Would you be able to finish the report by Monday? I can say something like it's hot in here and I can either be a speech act to inform you of this fact, or it can be a speech at the request of you that you turn on the air conditioning and his heart
I'm sorry you actually, okay, these are the kinds of problems that caused bugs and artificial intelligence mission
in our great at interpreting, nuance or tone or intends they need practice in the Enron. Corpus is like one giant perfect training ground for developing those skills, its help,
rain spam filters hate the Enron emails had a lot of spam. We can connect you to the world's rich and famous capture. The attention of millionaires are unique mark. The emails played a role in the development of SIRI.
Google reportedly use them when it was developing smart, composing gmail. If you ve, used IE
in the last year or so, you'll know what I'm talking about this. Is that thing? Where predicts what it thinks you want to say next, sometimes
actually really helpful, but early versions had this bad habit of suggesting the phrase. I love you a little too often
If you're a researcher, you can spend hours, sifting, organizing studying these emails and come to think of them purely as data, and then you may come across one like this November
sixth, two thousand one, seven twenty.
three p m, no subject, so you are looking for one night stand after all,
Whoever wrote that email probably didn't want it to have a long legacy. Did you feel any
ethical qualms using the Enron emails.
I relied on the process, having worked the process being that people are given the chance to withdraw emails. This said.
I have my doubts because in one of the releases, the very first email you saw was a very personal email which probably
Is the sender didn't towards receiver more likely didn't want to spread around?
years ago, Owen Rambo was on a train in Texas. He and her husband were.
sitting in the dining car and we started talking to the people were added to our table and therefore, from Houston and
working Enron Day in and day out so just said, oh did you work for Enron, just like that and the guy said yes
kind of like meeting a celebrity. The sky was one of a hundred and fifty in the corpus, and there was a sort of such a fascinating
your coincidence, and it reminded me that this corpus, which you know we give to our computers
through algorithms and reduce the numbers and correlations there really are real people at the other end and you can meet them and Amtrak trains and Texas, and we then gas
a little bit about other people who were mention had corpus who serve almost seemed like people. I know
so much of what we know about the world and how it works with some
I learned through this corpus, so much of our technology was developed using the corporates, but Owen Rambo is right. These aren't just data points. These aren't just emails there.
The old people at one energy company at one period of time right before it went bust net, raises all sorts of red flags
more about them. For this.
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there are two really obvious ethical issues with using the Enron emails for anything. First of all, the people who wrote them,
did not sign up to be part of an academic study. They did not give researchers are,
The boss permission to comb through all of their old conversations and we'll get to that. But first there's another problem here: the biases of the people. Writing the emails could become the basis of the estimates.
train on them, Amanda Levin Dusky teaches it, and why you, in studies, how bias creeps into technology and
worried that a ton of our artificial intelligence is based, at least in part, on the emails written by one hundred and fifty people at energy company that went bust because of fraud. First of all, they're, not geographically representative. A lot of those emails were from people based in the Houston office. It's not going to be representative in terms of corporate culture because it was a Houston based oil and gas company and because it's a hundred and fifty senior executives at this company you're not going to have the kind of gender or racial diversity that you might expect at a different sort of company.
and if you're looking for evidence of this bias, you don't have to look any further than the emails themselves like. This is one email chain where someone sends an article about bill. Clinton dog buddy getting hit by a car, the Enron official rights back. That is a shame for the dog. I'm very happy about Clinton's grief.
There are emails about taking on the World Wildlife fund. Subject: double
W ash remember this is the group that publicly announced that Enron has gotten away with murder for years and we are going to get them these
are the emails underpinning a lot of our artificial intelligence? If there are massage instant, jokes or shows of power in particular, Emil's those same implicit biases can become encoded in the air? I that's train on that corpus. Computer scientists tend to put this another way. They call it garbage and garbage out so who wrote this stuff? I wanted to talk to someone who worked at and run at,
time. Who actually wrote some of these emails. All the names are there and I found that a lot of them list and run as a former employer on their linkedin profiles. So I started calling
and I had a lot of dead ends- we
Sorry, you have reached a number that has been disconnected or is no longer in service. If you have me, while
starting thou. I met someone else who was obsessed with the emails. A guy named SAM Levine he's an artist and educator who, as you
is the Enron emails in his own work as art deals with these questions it forces people like me to really think about why reading through the corpus makes us feel so uncomfortable,
One of my favorite series of email stories from the archives between two people who
were married and they both worked at Enron and they're going to divorce, because she
She did on him. I think, and you can like read their whole sort of correspondence.
and what do you see in these emails you it's like-
saw you today from a distance and like I thought about what we used to have, and I am so sorry and I hope we can be friends again one day, you know you don't stuff like that
but you're watching your relationship, dysentery, yeah itself,
Something you shouldn't red really is invasive yeah I mean there's something like I feel
dirty reading these emails, even that so long ago, has been public for so long and yet, if you like, and my just a boy air here, it is very very interesting. I tried to reach that couple. Sam Levine was talk
about to ask them how they felt, but I gotta voicemail high damp cough calling from business insider.
New York. Eventually I reached the guy by email. He said he's
not angry about his emails being released, but he didn't want to do an interview,
SAM Levine. The artist has been living with these emails for a few years now, along with his colleague, take a brain
He used the emails as the basis of an experimental art. Projects to our project is called the good life and in the good life you get the opportunity to receive all the emails from the Enron archive.
the director in Box, in the order that they were originally sent and with the appropriate amount of time between eighteen. Apparently, a few hundred people have signed up to get their actual in boxes. Clogged with old Enron emails
Levine. Even did it himself to have this on your main email account. Is that site not felt it around?
now now so I read, every single one might go home.
Have you spend a day on this now that lie
like our little really short. You know, so it doesn't take that blonde treat all of them and it's a really interesting experience. I think,
because it sort of like a lot of times, you'll see the email come in and it'll be like media
it room ten and fifteen minutes after all,
is the meeting. I didn't love at that meeting
about the right right. This habit
one thousand nine hundred and ninety nine. Actually it's okay- I don't- I didn't actually have to go to that music, ironically or perhaps fittingly.
Of the Enron emails get caught in the bean spam filters. How do you feel about
your emails getting caught in spam filters that might have been trained on the very emails that
we're trying to send? It's really nice
works. I get it. I think it's great, I said
wanted to know how it felt to be someone. Who's emails were released in the corpus whose every word at Enron is now parsed in dissected by researchers. With
their consent. Eventually, someone picked up how up high Missus Mitchell Taylor. Yet
hi, damn Bob caught from business insider in New York Harry you hurry you good. Thank you
I'm calling you for an interesting reason. Miss Taylor was a managing director at Enron.
He's. Also, the guy Owen, Rambo, ran into on a train a few years back I want Rambo, I had to jog is
Mary. Ah, oh, oh, oh, oh, what's advising Rambo
I am B o w. I do remember this now. Ok, I had him on the phone. This was
my big shot, I wanted to know how he felt when all these males were dumped on the web back in two thousand three, yet no you would have thought some privacy advocates would have come to our defence budget. That point being within, ran. There's no one come in here, the fence, no one, don't
the point that they were they were the evil empire. Sarah was happy verb, any bad things that happen to Enron people. So he took
we that there was so much news about and run so much bad press about and ran back then that the email dump didn't really register. It was just another thing that happened. I've read some of Miss Taylor, Z, males by the way, most of them sound, like work emails. Subject: re project credit update thanks for the update with regard to further interference from the pvc in and the comment that the pc and must approve each you get the idea, I don't think I've ever gone and worked at which one
They had certainly didn't have a mistress. I didn't have any young criminal stuff,
now what I pass along inappropriate joke. I I may have been a canopy rather sarcastic at times in emails, that aspect of it never come back to us to bite me in any
I believe that I've seen are that I'm aware of when I first heard about this story. I remember thinking how weird and cool it
is that the emails from Enron of all companies have been so important in our lives that accompany died, but the emails live on
but the more I dug into it. The weirder I started to feel about the corpus I really
should be able to read about strangers, divorces and affairs. I should have access to someone's daycare scheduling, even if it happened two decades ago,
but, on the other hand I use SIRI, I like when Gmail suggests,
What I was going to say that I have to type it out. I think it's nice that some real,
good and some real human progress came out of the Enron collapse, but at what cost?
I really want to know what tat would thinks about all this now, after all, he's the guy who release them in the first place back when he was a regulator, and he told me he saw sleep over, it was hard because I sat there and go you know it was just in other impact on and now that I've been through privacy breaches on man
was a huge accomplice in there that the lot of people not love him women. The tower now live, there's private out of people whose privacy is was impact Dixon S. Currently, by what I did who live in my area code. He said that
He could do it over again. He probably release a lot of the emails, but would have taken much more care to scrub out the personal stuff to protect the people in their who were just collateral damage
What would you say to them? I'm sorry, you know, if you didn't do anything wrong, you probably don't have anything to be ashamed of, and if you did something wrong, damn it. I got you, but it's for all those people in the middle who just had a normal expectation of privacy, of just kind of their personal affairs personalize, their business affairs and how they would be abused. You know, I think, that's I wouldn't want that. What you doing to others as you have them, do, unto you. I wouldn't probably want that done to me.
was produced by a bunch of people do had. He mounted dresses in the early two. Thousands like music
skins, zero, seven at Yahoo Doc harm for doing a have, Comcast, DOT, net and love. This
when at horizon dot net, that's Sarah women
Mr Daul, that Jennifer Siegel and has asked me. I think I was critical eye
Well that come from there
Was Dan Bob caught the show?
is called brought you buy. It is excellent, is Bruce by business Insider,
we'll have a link in the show notes and on our website
yeah. I got Joe Rosenberg organise this feature for us
back with an original homegrown unknown prehistory next week to see them?
Transcript generated on 2020-11-11.