Someone to watch over you

Your boss thinks you're using the Net to goof off. With programs like LittleBrother, he can track your every click -- and block sites that make you "unproductive."

Published September 18, 1997 4:25PM (EDT)

"Little Brother is watching your Internet usage," reads the friendly Javascript line scrolling across the bottom of the Kansmen Corporation's Web page.

Would George Orwell be amused, or simply shake his head and sigh? It's wry enough that the info-explosion has spawned a thriving market for software programs that monitor or limit access to the Internet. But to dub one such program "LittleBrother" tests the irony-overload limits of even the most jaded, marketing-blasé techno-dweeb. Who knew surveillance could be user-friendly, too?

LittleBrother is aimed at corporations or other institutions that yearn to know where their employees are wandering on the Web. As a bonus, Little Brother encourages network administrators to block certain regions of the Net from their workers. Such software censorship doesn't make the Big Brother grade, explains a LittleBrother product manager, because it's not the government that's doing the surveillance. It's just your employer, and that's OK.

More than OK, actually -- vitally necessary. After all, everyone knows the Internet is the greatest gift to goofing off since the invention of solitaire. Instead of making that next sales call or writing up that next memo, employees are perusing box scores at ESPN SportsZone, reading movie reviews on Salon or, worst of all, salivating over online porn -- on company time and company equipment. In an era of sexual harassment suits, the legal liability issues presented by Penthouse Online alone would give any corporate lawyer a nightmare. It's a crisis situation! Luckily, it's also a computer situation, so there's bound to be a software solution. But is buying a shrink-wrapped answer-in-a-box the right response -- or just a corporate cop-out?

Not every corporation buys into the Internet-equals-productivity-tar-pit meme. At your more technically savvy companies, unmonitored, uncontrolled access to the Net is considered at least as important as unlimited free coffee refills. A spokesperson for Silicon Graphics, the maker of high-end computer workstations, notes, "The Web is an important part of our business and Web usage among our employee base is encouraged and, in many respects, crucial to our present and future success." At SGI, individual Web use is neither monitored nor limited. The same is true, unsurprisingly, at SGI's Silicon Valley neighbor, Netscape.

But high-tech banner-carriers like SGI or Netscape are probably the exceptions. The trade press is full of reports of corporate managers blaming productivity losses on the Internet. For a more representative corporate attitude, try Pacific Bell, where some 20,000 employees have, or will soon have, Net access, and where non-business use of the Internet is "prohibited."

The goof-off syndrome isn't imaginary. According to one survey, at least half of the respondents admitted to spending more than an hour a week Web surfing for personal use while at work. And at least one network security analyst who frequently consults on Internet access issues asserts that such personal use does often translate to porn. Indeed, the image of the cubicle-imprisoned corporate employee furtively grabbing a peek at scenes of orgasmic frenzy is fast becoming an info-age archetype. Forget about productivity losses; if a pinup calendar is grounds for a sexual harassment suit, then interactive online wanking surely qualifies as well.

Thus the boom in censorship and surveillance software.

"Demand is definitely growing," says Art Shelest, product manager at Kansmen Corp., the makers of LittleBrother. "The market is extremely big. Most any company will need a solution as soon as they connect to the Internet, unless they can afford to pay the price of unproductive Internet usage."

Most companies involved in the marketing of network monitoring and Internet blocking software report sales surging from month to month. Some, like Optimal's Internet Monitor or Sequel's Network Access Manager, are targeted at administrators who want to track the overall use of their networks. For many admins, that's all they want. One technical services director who installed LittleBrother says he mostly wanted to find out how much Internet bandwidth was being consumed at his company. He had no interest in censoring access, but he acknowledged that, down the line, his superiors might want to start blocking sites.

And that's the specialty of LittleBrother and its competitors, like WebSense.
LittleBrother groups Web sites into catch-all categories such as sports or entertainment. Access to the categories can then be blocked, as a company desires. LittleBrother can also rank sites as "productive" and "unproductive," and can even generate daily reports charting how productive each employee's surfing has been. WebSense targets its categories even more specifically than LittleBrother -- its built-in checklist allows network administrators to ban all sites pertaining to topics like "abortion," "new age/cult" or "tasteless."

On the Net, even the slightest whiff of censorship is anathema, and even Kansmen's Shelest concedes that "the subject of Internet monitoring is still very controversial." But surely only the most fervent privacy advocates would argue that a corporation doesn't have the right to police the use of its own resources. You want to use that nice fat company T-1 line to scout out job opportunities at your competitors? Go right ahead-- but don't expect the courts to go to bat for your right to privacy.

The real question is whether software is the right remedy for productivity woes -- or whether there really is a problem to begin with. The Internet did not invent goofing off. It may have encouraged a shift in the allocation of goofing-off priorities, but that's just a surface ripple obscuring deeper corporate currents, argues Marcus Ranum, a consultant on security issues (and the principal in a company that markets a network management tool -- one that's not dedicated to site-blocking).

"It's extremely bogus," says Ranum. "If people hate their jobs they are going to play Doom or surf the Web all day or stand outside and smoke cigarettes. It's silly to point at technology and say this is what is making people waste their time."

And, conversely, it's just as silly to expect technology to prevent those same people from wasting their time. "You cannot solve social problems with software," says Ranum.

But when social problems occur in a technologically delimited environment, the temptation to simply patch a hole with a few lines of code is irresistible. Not only, as Ranum notes, do "computers offer a promise of control and predictability that people don't," but the implementation of a software program allows a network administrator to say to his or her superiors, look, here's concrete evidence that we're dealing with the porn problem. Never mind that every technofix has a loophole, or that employee morale might suffer from the prospect of managerial surveillance, or that you can't expect 100 percent productivity all the time. The software solution is the easy way out.

Ranum thinks the tendency to look for answers to perceived productivity problems in programs like LittleBrother is "moral cowardice."

"What we're seeing is part of the inevitable decline of cluefulness in the United States," says Ranum. "Nothing is anyone's fault. Nobody wants to be responsible for going down the hall and telling their employee or colleague that something is not allowed." Just fire the first employee caught breaking the no porn rule, he says, and your company will see a dramatic decline in porn accesses.

Indeed, in the long run, the best policy seems to be just having a policy. Craig Campbell, a video production specialist in Kansas City, just completed a master's thesis on the topic of employee productivity and Internet access. Campbell's data demonstrate that the mere presence of a policy against personal Web surfing is nearly as effective as actual software "gatekeeping" when judged according to efficacy in squelching Net related goofing off -- and at a much lower cost to boot.

In other words, the real answer to productivity problems may be just the simple ability to say "no" -- and mean it. And not depend on Orwellian technology as a cop-out crutch.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

MORE FROM Andrew Leonard

Related Topics ------------------------------------------