SAN FRANCISCO — A new line of business software introduced Tuesday by search engine maker AltaVista Co. will enable employees to scour corporate networks, e-mail accounts and personal computers by stitching together valuable – and sometimes embarrassing – information scattered on far-flung office systems.
AltaVista hails the new product as a desirable tool for increasing productivity. But a prominent computer privacy expert said it could backfire, hurting employee morale by making it easier to fish out personal e-mails and other sensitive data stored on hard drives. The software also could raise legal issues and create new security headaches.
“This could open a real Pandora’s box,” said Gregg Williams, an attorney who specializes in employment law for Fenwick & West in Palo Alto. “There are some private things on office computers that you really don’t want to know about.”
Palo Alto-based AltaVista says businesses will be able to tailor the software so certain areas of an office’s computing systems remain off-limits.
The number of employees able to search the master index also can be restricted. The software will use the same patented technology that has made AltaVista’s Web site one of the world’s most popular online search engines during the past six years.
The company said the search software received positive feedback in test runs by several companies, including Accenture, Putnam Investments, Factiva and Vertex Pharmaceuticals
By making it easy to retrieve information from a hodgepodge of computer servers, e-mail accounts and PC hard drives, the search software effectively creates a peer-to-peer network similar to the one popularized by the online music-sharing Web site Napster, which is battling to stay afloat after running afoul of copyright laws.
The AltaVista software is based on the premise that businesses operating in an information-driven era will be better off if more employees can sift through a community storehouse of data gathered from corporate intranets, workers’ e-mail boxes and PC hard drives.
AltaVista estimates 75 percent of all information on corporate networks and PCs are stored in formats that cannot be quickly searched like a database or spreadsheet. AltaVista said its software can search through more than 200 different computer applications and recognize 30 different languages.
Similar office search products have been made by Autonomy, Verity and Convera, but none have been quite as powerful or as easy to use as AltaVista’s new product, said Dana Gardner, research director for the Aberdeen Group, an industry analyst in Boston.
“This looks like something that really could be for the common good of businesses,” Gardner said. “One of the really annoying things for businesses today is the knowledge that they have all this great stuff in their computers, but it’s very difficult to get to it when they need it most.”
Creating a master index of all the information on a company’s central servers, e-mail accounts and PCs would tempt some employees to snoop for office gossip and possibly promote interoffice espionage among rival workers seeking to impress their bosses on important projects, said Richard Smith, chief technology officer for the Privacy Foundation in Denver.
“Indexing e-mail and hard drives and opening them up to general searches would be really dangerous. It would hurt both companies and their employees by damaging morale and distributing information never meant to be shared,” Smith said.
But Gardner contends the financial benefits of AltaVista’s search software overshadow any concerns about offending employees who aren’t supposed to be storing personal information on corporate property in the first place.
“For every person that gets a little embarrassed because some personal information gets passed around the office, there are going to be more people who are able to find important information that helps them close a sale with an important customer or build a better mousetrap,” the analyst said.
Having a central index, however, could place a greater legal burden on employers, attorney Williams said. For instance, an employee alleging harassment by another co-worker could demand an employer to search for incriminating evidence in e-mail accounts and PC hard drives.
And creating a central index isn’t practical for most companies concerned about protecting confidential information, said John Garber, chief strategic officer for Cryptek Secure Communications in Chantilly, Va. “This is white-tower stuff. There probably isn’t a company with more than 40 employees where all the employees should be entitled to see everything in a company’s computers”
On The Net: