That a spy leaked classified information from the White House through e-mail was disturbing on many levels. The mildest reaction would be...

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That a spy leaked classified information from the White House through e-mail was disturbing on many levels. The mildest reaction would be that e-mail has really lost its innocence. The strongest comes from those who lament the collapse of security or the ineptitude of those in charge. In between, some claim to have an easy solution that will prevent this from happening again.

While the solution isn’t quite as painless as slapping an Easy Button, it could be as simple as making government realize something corporations have known for some time: Monitoring e-mail in both directions is necessary to maintain true security. It’s common sense to apply filters to keep viruses and worms outside the firewall. Keeping control over confidential information and making sure it doesn’t leave without permission isn’t so obvious.

A company called Proofpoint (www.proofpoint.com) has developed a series of corporate solutions. They are not cheap, many of their clients pay upward of $1 million to implement them. On the other hand, as senior vice president of marketing Sandra Vaughan points out, it depends on what you have and how much you will pay for its protection.

Many of Proofpoint’s current customers are in the health-care or financial field, and this software adds a level of safety. This begs the question about the value of data affecting national security. It’s open to interpretation, but it’s possible that information of this nature deserves at least the same protection as your biopsy report or bank account.

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Government, by necessity, is slower than industry in adopting the latest innovations. The reasons to increase security are clear to a bank or an HMO, not the least of which is the fact they can get sued into nonexistence for breaking a confidence. For this reason they act quickly. A government agency is accountable to a different group, including watchdogs who blanch at any new expense. The tax police will freak about this, but it may be a worthwhile expense. A million dollars isn’t all that much in the grand scheme of the national budget. As in many corporations, this investment today could save more than a million dollars worth of pain at a later time.

Vaughan laughs when it is suggested that her company has a patriotic duty to set up the system for free, but said its salespeople are now calling upon the White House and will “give them a deal they can’t refuse.” She said it would take just a few days to plug the obvious holes and another month to get everything to work perfectly.

With this, our leaders will acquire abilities heretofore unavailable anywhere outside of the moderately profitable wing of the private sector. They will develop a database of confidential terms, controlling who sends the mail to whom. They will be able to absolutely govern the disposition of their documents within the network and prevent unauthorized data from escaping.

The system doesn’t prevent an employee from copying a confidential file to a disk and reading it on another computer. A different set of controls is needed to guard against all deliberate thievery, but the days of sneaking a secret file to a Yahoo! address are over. Vaughan said the product line prevents some malicious acts, but mostly guards against the time-honored mistake of accidentally sending messages to the wrong person.

As corporations and government agencies wise up and install monitoring software, the ordinary average guy is left behind. Those of us who exist outside of the enterprise operate at a disadvantage. We have only a sense of right and wrong, attention to detail and a level of personal precision to protect us against ourselves.

If you have questions or suggestions for Charles Bermant, you can contact him by e-mail at cbermant@seattletimes.com. Type Inbox in the subject field. More columns at www.seattletimes.com/columnists.