Beware, Big Brother's watching you

Hide those dirty pictures, stop killing those terrorists - your employer is probably watching you. If they aren't actually reading your email or watching which Web sites you visit, there is likely to be a computer doing the job for them.

Hide those dirty pictures, stop killing those terrorists - your employer is probably watching you.

If they aren't actually reading your email or watching which Web sites you visit, there is likely to be a computer doing the job for them.

Just a couple of weeks ago, Dow Chemicals in Michigan fired 50 people and disciplined 200 others for sending explicit pornographic pictures through the company's email system.

The New York Times also fired 23 staff late last year after trawling through its emails and finding an array of porn and dirty jokes.

And even New Zealand companies, such as U-Bix, have sacked people for downloading porn.

Studies suggest that up to a quarter of email/Internet use is not work-related, potentially costing US firms billions of dollars.

Business is employing Big Brother tactics not just to ensure staff are working, but also to protect themselves from sexual harassment cases. Financial firms also monitor email to protect themselves from insider trading claims.

Three-quarters of US firms monitor their staff and 28% have told the American Management Association that they have fired people for misuse of email or the Internet. Most Kiwi companies contacted by Computerworld also monitor email and Internet usage and many have disciplined staff.

The AMA says company snooping is rampant, with software such as MicroData's Cameo making the job child's play. MIMESweeper from Content Technologies, for example, uses lists of key words and sophisticated grammatical rules to filter corporate mail, searching for potential liabilities.

And the market for these products is set to explode, with research company IDC predicting a 14-fold increase in this market to $US952 million by 2004.

Most Kiwi firms already have email and Internet polices and many snoop. Workers both here and overseas have little or no right to use the Internet unmonitored.

U-Bix says key elements of its policy are minimal personal use, no pornographic or offensive material, no games or copyright-protected material, company ownership of all material in the email system and no employee privacy rights to any material within its email system.

U-Bix general manager Sheree Tootell says some staff have received written warnings for excessive use, and 18 months ago someone was dismissed for downloading porn.

Unisys has also warned staff for viewing porn sites and says access to such sites is not permitted.

The firm has techies in America searching for inappropriate users. "We know who these people are, when they did it and for how long," says HR director Ken Goodwin.

And local management can easily discover who is excessively using the Internet and email.

"All of our employees are on timesheets. They have to account for their time," he says.

However, Unisys does encourage the use of email and Internet, saying much of its training is online.

And Goodwin, who says he receives 50 emails a day, admits some messages are personal.

Clear Communications is presently updating its email/internet policy and says the company has "an obligation to ensure that the workplace is free from sexual and other harassment, offensive material, improper communications and other unlawful behaviour".

"If Clear becomes aware of the email or Internet facility being used for unlawful or improper activities, it may take appropriate action to deal with such activities," the company manual says.

However, Clear's HR director Peter Merry could not recall whether this had led to any firings.

At Advantage Group, email and Internet polices are seen as "bureaucratic", says HR director Philippa Furlong.

"We don't have an email and Internet policy. We have very intelligent people working for us and I am not aware of any problems," she says.

If staff are looking at the Internet, it is probably a relaxation period. All that matters is they are "delivering the results", she says.

Advantage has monitoring capabilities and firewalls to look for viruses, but only some spying.

"It goes against our culture. I think people would feel uncomfortable," Furlong says.

And what about IDG New Zealand, which publishes this newspaper?

I don't recall being told anything official. However, I have heard the IT boys on floor seven have the spying technology, but are too busy doing other things to use it on the staff.

It seems a matter of common sense. Some personal use is fine; it's just a matter of drawing the line and stopping email and the Internet from getting in the way of your job. As for "offensive" material, one guide might be: what would your boss say of the image or joke?

For those considering email and Internet policies, the following Web sites may be of use: www.computer-policy.com, www.townonline.com/privacyjournal, www.mimesweeper.com and www.ema.org.

For those looking at filtering or content blocking software, try www.getnetwise.org and www.InternetProducts.com.

The last word goes to Content Technologies president Walter Boos. " 'Breast', if it is in reasonable proximity to 'chicken' is probably no problem. If it's in reasonable proximity to other words, it might not be so good."

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