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How Wall Street gets all Big Brother on emails

Being Big Brother isn’t quite as glamorous as you might think.

Disheveled desks, piles of used coffee cups and the quiet hum of professional voyeurism: That’s how one email surveillance industry expert described the offices at a major financial institution where low-level employees sift through a seemingly endless stream of emails automatically flagged for review.

“You didn’t want to walk in there and make a noise, because it looked like anyone could crack at any second,” the expert said. “The people who stare at that stuff start to get paranoid … they start getting conspiracy theories in their heads. I don’t know anybody who’s done it for more than two years.”

That description offers a rare peek behind the scenes into the employee surveillance systems used by financial companies to ferret out wrongdoing, fraud and other undesirable behavior. SEC and FINRA rules require companies to supervise employee communications, but there is little government guidance about what exactly companies should monitor those communications for.

A CNBC review of email search software found programs that monitor for conduct that could be simply embarrassing or costly for a corporation. For example, one piece of software attempts to ferret out employees who might be about to become whistleblowers informing authorities of wrongdoing inside a company. Another program scans outbound emails for the known email addresses of major media organizations in an effort to spot corporate leakers. CNBC obtained a list of the media organizations targeted by the program, which includes all of the major television networks and newspapers including The Washington Post and The New York Times.

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