For some reason, when technology enters the picture simple 80/20 economics flees the room. Here’s the latest example.

The FBI, rested now that the Clipper Chip controversy has faded, wants the cellular phone system to let them “…determine the location of a cellular phone caller within a half-second and almost instantly monitor the status of cellular-phone voice mail, conference calls and other wireless communications features,” according to the New York Times.

I’ll withhold comment on the public policy aspects of this issue. No matter how tempted I may be, I won’t give in and point out the huge potential for abuse in a proposal like this.

My goals are more modest: since prisoners teach each other how to build cellular scanners for 500 bucks, I’m wondering why the gummint (as President Reagan used to call it) can’t make do with this more economical technology.

You need to tell everyone in your company with a cellular phone about what follows: Anyone – criminals, private investigators, industrial spies, and the FBI – can easily build a cellular scanner. With it they can get voice mailbox numbers and passwords, and long-distance calling card numbers. Are you using cellular modems? Then they can get network logins and passwords, too.

That’s what the FBI could accomplish for about the cost of a color inkjet printer. I have a hard time believing the huge expenditures its current proposal would require will result in anything like a corresponding increase in effectiveness.

Personally, I’d rather reduce the deficit a bit more, thank you.

Some of you are probably getting pretty worked up about the privacy aspects of this proposal. Me too. Before you burst a blood vessel, though, stop and look in the mirror for a moment. You may just see the director of the FBI looking back at you.

No? Take a look at your company’s policy regarding the privacy (or lack thereof) of electronic mail and voice mail. Does it have an FBI-like tone? Many companies sanctimoniously proclaim these to be corporate resources, so employees have no right to use them for personal business nor have a reasonable expectation of privacy.

Well yes, they are corporate resources. Yes, companies can legally restrict their use to company business, and search through them at will. Opinion: companies need to distinguish between what they legally can do and what they ought to do.

Okay, I’ll climb off my high horse. Whether you agree with my position or not, if you haven’t created a written, well-publicized policy regarding employee expectations of privacy in electronic and voice mail, do so immediately. You need to draft it. Everyone up to the CEO needs to have their name on it. This is important.

What should be in it? First and foremost, you need to establish the company’s legal right to look through employee messages.

Once you’ve finished establishing the company’s legal rights, you should emphasize standard practice, which (in my awesomely humble opinion) should be this: Under most circumstances, employees have a reasonable expectation of privacy regarding the contents of their desks, interoffice memos, telephone conversations, and electronic and voice mail messages. Under some circumstances, though, the company may need to look through employee e-mail and voice-mail messages. A customer may call when an employee is on vacation, for example, and you just need to find a key memo or spreadsheet.

Why create an expectation of privacy? Two reasons. First, if the company treats employees as serfs or children in this context, it will have a hard time asking them to ask them to act as responsible, accountable adults in performance of their jobs.

Second, the lines between personal and business time have blurred. Personal business happens in the daytime. Employees take work home, and don’t charge the company for use of their personal desks and telephones. If a company asks for the latter, it shouldn’t complain about the former.

Back when I was studying electric fish, I learned a bit (no pun intended) about information theory. The math isn’t too difficult and has wide and surprising applicability.

Information resolves uncertainty. If someone flips a coin, you’re uncertain as to how it landed. With a fair coin (one that lands on each 50% of the time) the information needed to resolve your uncertainty regarding the outcome is called a “bit” (short for “binary digit”).

Toss two coins. 50% of the time they deliver a heads/tails combination (one bit again); two heads and two tails each happen 25% of the time – two bits each, because those events are twice as unlikely. Which, I suppose, is why we call a quarter “two bits”.

The weighted average of all outcomes – the probability of each outcome times the bits in each outcome – is the average information content in the event. In our double coin-toss, it’s .25*2 bits + .5*1 bit + .25*2 bits = 1.5 bits, or more generally, -SUM(p(i)*log2p(i)), if you care.

Try this: take some function and rate every application used by the employees that accomplish it. 5 means it’s critical, 3 means it’s important, and 1 means it’s used somehow. Add the ratings together and make each application’s rating a proportion of the total (“p” in the formula). Compute the formula – call it “application complexity” (more complex environments need more information to describe them). Fewer, better-integrated applications will reduce the complexity – and improve the end-user environment.

In English, the information formula means the more obvious the statement, the less information it contains. That’s why “dog bites man” isn’t news (low information content) – while “man bites dog” is.

I’m afraid this column will have no information content for many readers, as it may seem pretty obvious. It wraps up our series on interacting with end-users, though, and the series would be incomplete without it, so I’m going to press on.

Most Information Systems organizations have some form of executive steering committee to make sure its priorities and initiatives stay in line with the company’s strategic objectives and critical success factors. If yours doesn’t, you should form one right away.

A surprising number of IS departments have no corresponding feedback channel to help with the nitty-gritty day-to-day crud. If you haven’t organized a PC users group or something along those lines, your life is much harder than it needs to be.

If you support PCs and networks in an organization of any size, your chance of understanding the concerns and priorities of the end-user community are pretty dismal. It’s a diverse group of individuals, with widely varying priorities, levels of expertise, work habits, and deadlines. This constituency has no organizational clout, no easy consensus, and a large ability to create demand for your services.

A solution that’s worked well for me is to create an internal advisory group. Call it a PC Users Group, Network Advisory Council, or make it a Mentor Group function. The specifics are less important than how you position it. Your goal is to make this staff-level group a surrogate for the whole end-user community. Its consensus defines a lot of your requirements, and you, of course, set its agenda and facilitate its meetings.

Keep this group in the loop regarding server upgrades, software changes, training schedules, standard workstation configurations, PC delivery schedules, and every other aspect of your operation. Make sure its members understand your constraints and what you’re doing about them. Publicize it, give it a strong, clear advisory role, and also make sure its members understand their role in getting the word out to their coworkers. It’s a great way to transform fragmented demands into coherent requirements.