‘Big Brother’-Like Monitoring Growing at Work

You have a right to privacy at home, and can e-mail anyone, or visit any Internet site you choose. But do you have the same legal protections at the office? Probably not, experts tell TechNewsWorld, as, increasingly, employers monitor not only e-mail, but Internet usage, and, in some cases, phone calls as well. As the economy expands, employers are anxious to ensure that workers remain productive while they’re at the office.

A recent survey of more than 700 companies by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) found that nearly 75 percent of the companies monitor their workers’ use of the Internet, and examine employee e-mail. More than half scan employee phone calls.

According to another study by the American Management Association, businesses that offer financial services — like banks, brokerage houses, insurance firms, and real estate companies — are most likely to monitor their workers’ communications.

A Growing Trend

Another survey, by and America Online, demonstrates why employers are concerned, and why the trend of monitoring employee online time is likely to continue. The study shows that workers are spending 2.09 hours a day doing non-work related activities on the Internet. The survey has a lot of credibility — because it is based on anonymous responses from 10,000 employees, nationally. The lost productivity bill is quite staggering at around US$759 billion a year.

“The problem is much worse than most businesses could possibly have imagined,” said C. Douglas Fowler, president of SpectorSoft, a Vero Beach, Fla.-based developer of Internet monitoring software.

In addition to lost productivity, employers are worried that the slacker surfers will inadvertently download viruses or malware, further harming productivity when IT is disabled. What’s more, bandwidth for productive tasks is being consumed at the office by the goldbricking workers.

One employer, the Illinois Wholesale Cash Register Corp., recently installed Internet monitoring software on its network to monitor employees. The firm’s network administrator, Keith Becker, was flabbergasted by the results of the monitoring program.

“I had no idea what it was going to reveal,” said Becker. “After the first week, I did a spreadsheet report showing a minimum of 40-50 hours a week wasted, just on Internet surfing. The report easily projected savings of more than $50,000 a year. When the word about monitoring got out — that each employee would be held responsible — non-work activities [online] went down about 98-99 percent.”

Eagle Eye

Software is being used to monitor — and immediately capture — the e-mails that employees are sending from the office PC. IT tools can also determine what Internet chats the employees have engaged in, what instant messages they’ve sent, what files they’ve downloaded, what Web sites they have visited, what apps they have launched — even the keystrokes they have typed.

IT security personnel are then notified, automatically, by e-mail, as to whether certain words and phrases have been searched for online, or are contained in employee e-mail, instant messages, or other online activities.

“You could get in trouble for using company resources like an Internet connection to maintain your blog, and it will be very hard for you to argue that the blog is a work-related activity,” according to a recommendation by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the Washington, D.C.-based advocacy organization.

Some employers, however, have opted to let employees self-police their online use, rather than become a little version of “Big Brother.”

“The Internet is an indispensable tool for the frozen foods industry that allows us to offer full service, timely delivery and freight services,” said Jerry Woods, a truck owner and operator at SG Co., of Frozen Food Express Industries, based in Dallas. “Because the Internet is easily misused, we need a system that allows employees to self-monitor their Internet use, but stay focused on their responsibilities. We do not want to impose ‘Big Brother’ on our employees.”

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