In the virtual world, humans become real at the touch of a computer keyboard and language is what we use to define ourselves. Governments know this. So do commercial enterprises. They’ve been at work developing tools to determine what our keyboard strokes and our word choices reveal about us.
Twenty-seven percent of the computer hacks organizations experience come from inside the country. Curiosity about the workforce is understandable. Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden are prime of examples of workers who became disrupters. But there are many more Everyday disgruntled people use the workplace to steal intellectual property, embezzle funds, engage in sabotage or arrive at their desks intending to harm their co-workers. Scout is a new technology created to thwart these “do-badders.” The program has 60 algorithms to monitor stress. The words we use and the amount of pressure we apply on our computer keyboards are two good measurements.
For example, Scout looks for “unconscious syntactic and grammatical clues” to arrive at our state of mind. (“Spy Tech That Reads Your Mind,” by Roger Parloff, Fortune, July 1, 2016, pg. 74.) Too many negative words like no, not, never, catches Scout’s attention. So does heavy use of intensifiers like very, so, such. Language habits like these may be “linguistic precursors of bad behavior.” (Ibid pg. 76.)
Wanting a safe workplace and world is a reasonable goal. But what price are we willing to pay for it? As technology invades areas we once thought were unassailable, our conscious and unconscious thoughts, we need to consider the consequence of having machines determine our intentions before we are aware of them.
Ironically, recent legislation has us at cross purposes with ourselves. Because algorithms exist to predict disruptive behaviors, financial institutions are encouraged to us them as a precautionary measure. Failing to do so can subject these institutions to “regulatory sanctions as well a civil liability” if a crime is committed. (Ibid pg. 74) In June, for example, the Securities and Exchange Commission fined Morgan Stanley $1 million because a rogue financial adviser went undetected. (Ibid pg. 74.) Fines like this send a chilling message to those who would defend the right to personal privacy.