Can software predict violence?

New software scans every e-mail sent by each employee, looking for changes in vocabulary patterns. Is this a life-saving breakthrough or Big Brother?

Can software predict that someone in your office or workplace is about to "go postal"?

That's what one boutique investigative firm is attempting to do. By scouring thousands of e-mails and noticing subtle changes in writing patterns, investigators from Stroz Associates in New York think their software will be able to alert company officials that an employee is in danger of becoming violent. But what if it doesn't work? Or it works too well?

In the upcoming Steven Spielberg film "The Minority Report," Tom Cruise will star as Paul Anderson, police chief in Washington, D.C., during the year 2040. Anderson heads up the city's "Precrime" agency. Thanks to the amazing precognitive powers of three crime fighters called "precogs," the agency knows ahead of time when any murder will be committed - and is able to arrest the pre-murderer.

Today's police work is a bit more challenging. Cops can tell you what kinds of people have committed what kinds of crimes, but saying who's likely to sin against society is much more art than science - just ask any probation board.

Anticipating violence in the workplace can be even harder. There is some dispute about whether the office really is a more dangerous place to be than 20 years ago, but workplace mass murders seem to make headlines with alarming frequency. In February, four automotive plant workers in Illinois were shot to death by a former co-worker upset by a jail sentence for stealing from the company. In December, seven software consulting firm staffers in Massachusetts were shot to death by a co-worker distraught over an IRS matter.

But researchers working with Stroz Associates in New York think they're creating a formula that, while still inexact, will tip the scales in favor of human resource professionals worried about noticing distress signals before it's too late.

"Our greatest hope is to be able to plug this into employee assistance programs and, where there is a problem, be able to get employees help before their frustration blows up," said Eric Friedberg, co-founder of Stroz. "Stresses can be the result of manageable factors. Normal people can get to the point where . . . they are having trouble handling stress. Maybe they can be helped."

How it works
The idea behind the yet-to-be-named software is relatively straightforward - it scans every e-mail sent by each employee, looking for telltale changes in vocabulary patterns. The code is just about ready for real-world testing, Friedberg said. But the methodology for spotting potential violence, he contends, has already proven successful in years of tests. Stroz is working with former CIA psychologist Eric Shaw, who has spent the past 15 years spotting emotional fluctuation patterns in handwritten letters and notes.

"We detect anger," Shaw said. "For example, if the number of negatives - words like not, no, never - goes up quickly, that could be an indicator of increased hostility."

Another example: a sudden sharp rise in the number of e-mails to a particular person that reveal intense emotion.

"There is no stereotype for normal," Shaw said. "But with these patterns, we would alert somebody, and they would look into it."

Friedberg said it's the follow-up meeting that's key to the software's success. Just because an algorithm kicks in doesn't mean violence is a certainty; the software will sound an alarm in the human resource department, which can then dispatch an employee for a discreet consultation.

"The stresses could be as a result of manageable factors," Friedberg said, recalling a friend and former homicide detective who recently committed suicide. "One of the problems was he kept everything inside and didn't know how to deal with his frustrations. That can lead to disastrous consequences."

Invasion of privacy?
The idea of having a computer scour all your e-mail missives for emotional content may sound almost as disastrous to some, but workplace e-mail monitoring has become the rule rather than the exception. According to a recent survey by the American Management Association, nearly 80 percent of companies say they check worker e-mails in some way. About 50 percent admit to storing and reviewing employee e-mail.

"In an ideal world, we wouldn't have to be watched over," said Doug Fowler, president of SpectorSoft Corp., which makes generic e-mail monitoring software. "But there's a lot of things companies have to be careful of."

But would employing mathematical formulas to churn through worker e-mails make companies too careful? Privacy expert Richard Smith, CTO of the non-profit Privacy Foundation, thinks that's a danger.

"My concern would be false accusations," he said. "You raise the alarm for someone where there's not a really problem. ... Say you approach someone and ask, 'Is everything OK?' And they get wind that someone thinks they're going to go postal - or there are rumors about it - that sounds like a lawsuit waiting to happen."

Still, Friedberg and Shaw defend their concept as another tool in the toolbox of employers trying to manage an increasingly complex workplace environment.

"Normal forms of communication and the warnings that come with them have been shifting online," Shaw said. "If you're going to find it early and find the warnings, you have to go to e-mail. That's where people communicate now."

Try it on your kid?
In fact, they've already considered extending the tool beyond the workplace, making it available to parents who are concerned about their kids expressing their depression online. That idea worries Smith even more.

"I'd be concerned that there would be the unintended uses of this," he said. "Let's say you make a kid product for $79.95. Then someone says, 'Let me analyze my neighbor or my friend. Let me check out my spouse. My brother-in-law.' There would be all these weird ways these products could be used."

But Friedberg, a former prosecutor for the U.S. Attorney's Office in New York, still believes in the potential preventative power of his product.

"What if this software had been running on homes of children who were going to shoot up their schools and alarms had gone off?" Friedberg said. "Would anybody be crying foul that parents were noticing their kids e-mails? Everybody always says, 'Where were the parents?'"


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