Gotcha! Snoopware on the Job

August 2, 1999 12:00 am

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BALTIMORE, MD — If you use the company computer for lovey-dovey e-mail, sprucing up your resume or snapping up stocks through E*Trade, Big Browser may be watching, the Baltimore Sun reports. And there’s little you can do to stop it.

Case in point: Worried that one of his employees was busy jabbering away on the Internet when he should have been busy working, Shane Poole, a vice president at American Metal Fabricators, rigged the company computer network with Silent Watch — software that allows employers to see every keystroke workers make.

It wasn’t long before Poole saw the man tapping out “goo-goo, gaa-gaa comments” to his girlfriend over the Net, the words popping up on Poole’s computer screen as plain as if he were looking over the man’s shoulder. Poole marched in and ordered him back to work. “I don’t think he realized how I knew,” he told the Sun.

Electronic surveillance on the job is nothing new. Security cameras and phone logs have long been used to discourage employee mischief and ensure snappy customer service. But as computers and the Internet penetrate more workplaces, some managers are finding older technology inadequate.

That’s why many are turning to snoop software to watch over their wired employees. According to the American Management Association, 45 percent of U.S. companies electronically monitor employees on the job, up from 35 percent in 1997 — a spike due mostly to concern over employee e-mail and computer files.

“What are they going to do next? Track how many times I go to the bathroom?” grouses Howard Nordby, a 26-year-old engineer at defense contractor Northrop Grumman Corp. in Linthicum. Nordby says he was accused last fall of being an “Internet abuser” after he visited sports Web sites on his lunch hour.

In fact, workers have only a thin veil of privacy protection. According to the Sun, federal law prohibits employers from listening in on employees’ private telephone conversations, but “there’s absolutely no protection when it comes to electronic communications on computers,” said Jeremy Gruber, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union’s Workplace Rights Project.

Employers at private-sector companies, Gruber says, can riffle through your e-mail, computer files and Web browsing history at will — and in most cases they don’t have to let you know they’re doing it. Only Connecticut requires companies to tell workers they’re being electronically monitored. California lawmakers are considering a similar bill.

Some companies spell out their computer monitoring policies in print and require employees to sign them before they’re granted access to the corporate network. But one-fifth of the companies surveyed this year by the American Management Association did not tell employees they were being watched.

Gruber told the paper that the ACLU, which encourages companies to develop fair and ethical monitoring policies, gets about a half-dozen complaints a week from spooked employees. In one case, a woman reported that her boss had turned up an intimate e-mail she had sent to her boyfriend, printed it out and posted it on the company bulletin board.

“Under current law, if I were an employee I would be extremely hesitant to do any kind of personal business at work,” Gruber said.

But since most people don’t work 9 to 5 anymore, they sometimes have to take care of personal business on the clock. Further, in many cases the only Internet access they have is at work, so personal e-mail is unavoidable if they are to use it.

In addition to web privacy violations, access to sensitive employee information is on the rise as well. USA Today recently reported that employers are giving millions of employment and salary records to outside companies that share the data with landlords and others.

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