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Microsoft Corp. is developing new technology to help companies control their internal documents — a move some fear could also stamp out whistleblowing on corporate wrongdoing. The new technology, announced Friday, would let companies decide who can see, copy, print or forward e-mail and other digital materials. Access to documents could even be set to expire, so older files would remain encrypted and unreadable by anyone. Called Windows Rights Management Services, the new technology is meant to protect confidential or competitive data. It is part of Microsoft’s 13-month-old Trustworthy Computing initiative for improving security and privacy. Hundreds of corporate clients have complained about private information being leaked intentionally or by accident, said Mike Nash, corporate vice president of Microsoft’s security business unit. “The company does have a right and expectation for their platform to be trusted,” Nash said. But others see the technology as a threat to some of the best watchdogs of corporations — their own employees. After two years of corporate scandals — made public in part by employees’ exposing wrongdoing — whistleblower groups said they worry limited access to information could let companies get away with breaking the law. “It sounds to me like just another way to restrict the free flow of information,” said Joanne Royce, a senior attorney with the Government Accountability Project, a nonprofit public-interest advocate for whistleblowers. “In a way it sounds like it won’t hinder whistleblowers per se, because they won’t even get to see this stuff.” Windows Rights Management Services will be based on XrML, an industry programming standard that can run on Windows and non-Microsoft platforms alike. Several components are to be released this year. Those include software to supplement Windows Server 2003, the new server operating system due out in April; updates to versions of Windows and Internet Explorer; and software tools for developers to build applications incorporating rights-management technology. Companies have long complained about the inability to control proprietary data such as customer records, said Charles Rutstein, research director for Forrester Research. He expects companies will be interested in this technology particularly to protect themselves from product liability and other lawsuits. He added it is “a bit ironic” for the technology to come from Microsoft — which sustained both legal and public-relations damage from internal e-mails and documents in the federal government’s antitrust lawsuit against it. “If Microsoft themselves had this technology five or 10 years ago, and been using it effectively, they might not have found themselves in quite the same hot water with the judge,” Rutstein said. Microsoft contends the technology won’t affect whistleblowing on corporate fraud or other matters. Amy Carroll, group manager of the Windows Trusted Platform Group, said people can still photograph a computer screen. Michael Kohn, general counsel of the National Whistleblower Center in Washington, D.C., called Microsoft’s response “ludicrous.” In many whistleblower cases, employees came across documents in the trash or left around the office, Kohn said. This technology limits access to a much smaller group, he notes, making it more difficult for others to encounter evidence of wrongdoing. “You create a whole secret society within a corporation,” he said. “Anyone who is within that circle is unlikely to be a whistleblower.” Copyright 2003 Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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