Big Brother -- or your company -- is watching you

Hide those dirty pictures, scratch the solitaire: Major companies are increasingly monitoring employee Web, e-mail and phone activity.


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Diane Seo
August 3, 2000 11:30PM (UTC)

In the interest of discouraging its employees from surfing porn and engaging in hot eBay action, Cabletron used to send out a monthly staff e-mail. The message? A list of the top Web sites each employee had visited, the sites they went to that included "no-no" keywords (sex, shopping, etc.) and their company ranking in terms of time spent online.

By embarrassing employees with a Web transgression "report card," the New Hampshire tech firm sent a stern Orwellian message: We know what you're doing. Though the much-despised monitoring program was abandoned last year by incoming CEO Piyush Patel -- "He made it very clear he trusts people to do their job," says Cabletron Internal Technology chief Bill Davis -- other companies have not been so trusting.

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Big Brother -- in the form of your company's information technology (IT) department -- may be watching your Web tracks, or reading that e-mail you thought your trash had long since incinerated. According to the American Management Association (AMA), company snooping is rampant, with software such as MicroData's "Cameo" making it a snap for employers to pry as they see fit. For obvious reasons, most companies don't publicize their detective habits to employees, except in the form of vague memos warning that inappropriate equipment use won't be tolerated. But some firms are increasingly firing the violators.

Nearly three-fourths of the nation's largest corporations, from Xerox to Salomon Brothers Smith Barney, check up on employees by monitoring e-mail, Internet use, computer files and even telephone conversations, according to a study by the AMA, a nonprofit organization that provides management and business training.

Companies say they don't routinely (or randomly) spy on employees, but the AMA found that many would not hesitate to do so while conducting an investigation or a performance review. They're also willing to take quick action: 28 percent of the companies surveyed say they've already dismissed people for misusing office equipment.

Just last week, Dow Chemical Company fired 29 Michigan employees, suspended another 42 and disciplined many others for sending pornographic or "violent" images on company e-mail. After receiving an employee complaint, the firm spent a week scrounging through thousands of e-mail files. What turned up on Dow's servers were hardcore nudes and gory photos, including one of a motorcyclist who had been run over by a garbage truck. "There was a whole range of material, from mild pornographic pictures, to Sports Illustrated swimsuit photos, to hardcore and violent images," says Eric Grates, spokesman for Dow's Michigan headquarters. "The people involved crossed gender lines, and it wasn't just the hourly work force. From Dow's standpoint, it's very disappointing this happened."

The New York Times sifted through its employees e-mail late last year, and ended up booting 23 workers at its Virginia support offices for sending porn and dirty jokes. The investigation began after an employee used the company's letterhead to try to get benefits for a friend. Because the e-mail was improperly addressed, it bounced back to the company's server. A broader probe found several employees who had used the e-mail system improperly. "We had sent employees a copy of our e-mail policy, saying that reasonable personal use is OK as long as it's consistent with conventional ethical standards, but that sending offensive material is not," says Catherine Mathis, a spokeswoman for the company. "And in this case, it was very offensive material." Mathis, however, stressed that the company doesn't routinely monitor e-mail.

In yet another case last year, Edward Jones & Co., a St. Louis brokerage, got rid of 18 employees, warned 41 others and allowed another to resign, again for sending porn over the company's e-mail system. "We have 15,000 employees to protect, so we can't allow inappropriate behavior," says company spokeswoman Mary Beth Heying, adding that employees signed a document before they received Internet access, agreeing not to use the equipment for inappropriate purposes. "It all comes down to what employees do on the company's time."

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Viewing pictures of naked people, or just musing about them, seems to be a major preoccupation for the modern worker. A survey last September by Vault.com, a New York human resources site, found that of the 1,244 who participated in a survey, nearly 60 percent said they had received sexually explicit or otherwise improper e-mail messages at work.

At present, companies that do the most screening tend to be larger firms with more resources. Smaller companies often can't afford to tie up their tech teams to act like detectives, and they run the risk of scaring off employees who might have chosen to work there because they prefer a "family-like" atmosphere, as opposed to an overly watchful corporate environment. (Salon.com, for instance, doesn't screen employee e-mail or Internet usage, although it has the technology to do so.)

One Salon IT member, however, recalls how at his last job, he was appointed by the chief information officer to investigate employees' Web surfing habits. "I was asked only a couple of times to log where the person was going on the Web. Both cases, I was told it wasn't where they surfed, just the amount of time they spent surfing," he says. "They said that they basically wanted to bolster their reason for firing them."

When a complaint arises, companies say they have to check e-mail to protect against liability. If a female employee, for instance, complains to management about pictures of naked women being distributed through office e-mail, the company could have a sexual harassment suit on hand unless it puts a stop to it. At Chevron, for one, sexually charged e-mail, which contained such jokes as "25 reasons beer is better than women" was used along with other evidence in a sexual harassment claim settled in 1995 for $2.2 million.

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But corporations also want to secure their secrets and make sure employees are being productive, and not wasting the workday entertaining themselves. "For those of us who sit in a little Dilbert cubicle while the whole world remains only a couple of keystrokes away, the temptation is enormous," says Eric Rolfe Greenberg, AMA's director of management studies. "People are shopping on the Web, playing games and trading stocks. They're not using office technology for legitimate company purposes."

To stop employees from feeling the mere temptation of surfing for porn, some companies have put up firewalls, preventing access to certain sites. Dow Chemical had done that, but employees found another way to view naughty images -- through e-mail.

But it's not just porn that's causing distractions. Greenberg says he knows of a large insurance company where executives became addicted to playing computer solitaire. To combat the time-consuming problem, the firm organized an internal "Solitaire Anonymous." Whenever members felt the temptation to boot up the game, they would call other members to discourage them.

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Although playing too much solitaire or gawking at nude bodies clearly isn't proper use of employee time, there are some fine lines. For instance, some employees may shop online while they're at work, and as a result, don't need to take a lunch break to buy the goods. Sending personal e-mail, as long as it's not offensive in nature, also can take up less time than chatting with a friend or family member on the phone.

And then there's the whole issue of privacy, or the lack thereof...

"Employees tend to believe that they bring constitutional privacy rights with them to work, but they don't," Greenberg says. "Companies have unrestricted rights."

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Kary Moss, executive director of Michigan's American Civil Liberties Union, says the First Amendment doesn't apply in the workplace, giving companies the right to decide what's appropriate for employees to send on e-mail or view on the Web. Corporations also aren't obligated to tell employees when they hunt through their e-mail or track their Web usage. Employers, however, must make their policies clear before they take action.

On that point, Kent Holsing, vice president of the United Steelworkers of America Local 12075, which represents many of the fired Dow Chemical employees, says his group will be discussing the dismissals further with the company. "The union cannot condone some of the images we've seen, but we believe that the actions taken by the company may have been too severe," he says. "Employees feel that they were not well trained or educated about the policies of the e-mail system." The punished employees, he added, are "shocked, disappointed and very stressed."

Although the ACLU doesn't plan on getting involved in this case, Moss believes employers have to make sure employees understand what degree of privacy they have in the workplace, and allow them to protect it. "In the last decade, as technology has improved, there's been a decrease in employee privacy," she says. She adds that employees should ask their employers about their practices, because companies can't legally lie.

Dow's Grates said the company had announced that an e-mail investigation was being conducted. But the key, Greenberg says, is for companies to post their policies prominently, so that employees know exactly what's appropriate and what's not. It's not good enough to just send company e-mail with jargon most people won't understand. "There should be an ongoing dialogue, and everything should be made perfectly clear," he says.

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Diane Seo

Diane Seo is the senior business editor at Salon.

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