Who Is Watching You At Work?

By Lawrence Walsh  |  Posted 2008-03-12 Email Print this article Print

You might be surprised. A new survey finds that nearly half of all U.S. companies are monitoring employees’ use of e-mail, the Internet and, gulp, blogs. 

Practically every company has some statement in their employment agreement or employee handbook about acceptable Internet uses, and a few will even state that the company reserves the right to review and inspect all e-mails and computer files. But just how invasive corporate monitoring and who’s monitoring computer activities might surprise users. 

According to a new survey by the American Management Association and The ePolicy Institute, roughly one in four companies are actively monitoring employees’ e-mail, computer files, Web surfing and physical movement in the workplace.

The most common form of employee surveillance: Web surfing. According to the 2007 Electronic Monitoring and Surveillance Survey, 66 percent of American companies monitor and review users on-the-job Internet activity. Of those companies, 63 percent are conducting monitoring on an ongoing or routine basis.

Company’s biggest concerns when it comes to employee Web surfing: overwhelmingly adult and pornographic sites (96 percent). Gaming sites, such as online gambling and communal video games ranked second (61 percent). Surprisingly, social networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace ranked third (50 percent).

Corporate management is concerned about legal liabilities and ramifications associated with adult Web sites and productivity losses from users spending too much time on social networking, gaming and entertainment Web sites. Nearly two-thirds of the companies surveyed said they use Web filtering to block access to Web sites prohibited by their company policy.

Monitoring of computer usage is prevalent in many companies, including the use of keystroke loggers and time trackers and content filters. Approximately 43 percent of companies said they’re using some form of computer monitoring to measure employee usage, of which 60 percent are conducting regular or active monitoring. Another 43 percent inspect employee computer files for breaches of confidentiality, inappropriate material and policy violations.

Inappropriate e-mail use remains the most damning of employee Internet sins. Forty-three percent of companies say that they monitor employee e-mail; of which 96 percent monitor external e-mails and 58 percent monitor intra-company e-mail. 

Users stand a near equal chance of getting fired for either e-mail or Internet activity abuses. Twenty-eight percent of companies said they had fired an employee for an e-mail infraction; the most notable reasons: violating company policies (64 percent) and using inappropriate language (62 percent). Thirty percent of the companies said they had fired someone for inappropriate Internet activity; the top reasons: view, downloading or uploading offensive content (84 percent); violating company policy (48 percent) and excessive personal use (38 percent).

Surprisingly is how companies are treating social and new media, such as sites like Facebook and independent blogs. About one in 10 companies are monitoring the blogosphere and social networking sites to see what’s being said about their business and 18 percent block user access to external blogs.

Corporate surveillance isn’t confined to computer use. Nearly half of companies say they’re monitoring employee phone use, too, mostly time spent on the phone and numbers dialed. Phone monitoring isn’t as invasive as computer monitoring, with only 2 percent of companies recording employee phone conversations and 4 percent reviewing voice mail files.

While 25 percent of companies surveyed use video surveillance to counter employee theft, only 7 percent of companies use video cameras to monitor employee productivity – and only for select jobs.

So who’s doing all of this monitoring and surveillance? Three out of four times, it’s IT staff. After that, human resources (34 percent), legal (18 percent), compliance (17 percent) and outside third parties (4 percent).

Only two states— Delaware and Connecticut—require companies to inform employees of electronic monitoring, most companies report that they either tell employees that they could be monitored or actively inform employees when monitoring is happening.

Lawrence Walsh Lawrence Walsh is editor of Baseline magazine, overseeing print and online editorial content and the strategic direction of the publication. He is also a regular columnist for Ziff Davis Enterprise's Channel Insider. Mr. Walsh is well versed in IT technology and issues, and he is an expert in IT security technologies and policies, managed services, business intelligence software and IT reseller channels. An award-winning journalist, Mr. Walsh has served as editor of CMP Technology's VARBusiness and GovernmentVAR magazines, and TechTarget's Information Security magazine. He has written hundreds of articles, analyses and commentaries on the development of reseller businesses, the IT marketplace and managed services, as well as information security policy, strategy and technology. Prior to his magazine career, Mr. Walsh was a newspaper editor and reporter, having held editorial positions at the Boston Globe, MetroWest Daily News, Brockton Enterprise and Community Newspaper Company.

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