Monitoring programs raise questions of privacy

August 16, 1993|By Knight-Ridder News Service

PCs may be personal, but these days they're anything but private.

A new breed of software that can monitor a personal computer's activities is gaining in popularity every year. These programs -- with names such as PC-Sentry, Direct Access, Peek and Spy, and CloseUp LAN -- are used for everything from law enforcement to industrial productivity -- even parenting.

They can tell you how long a computer was used, what files were accessed, what programs were installed and whether anything was deleted. Some of these programs are used by companies to measure typing speed, how fast the user performs certain computer functions, and even the length of the user's bathroom breaks.

Monitoring workers is hardly a new phenomenon -- eavesdropping on employee telephone conversations has been common practice in some corporations for years. But the proliferation of computer networks is changing the battlefront.

Today, managers can watch what's happening on employees' PC screens without having to leave their desks. Sophisticated network software can give them more access to data stored on company PCs than ever before.

The use of computer monitoring programs is raising the heads of labor organizations, privacy groups and health advocates. They contend the monitoring infringes on personal privacy and leads to health problems and stress among employees.

Studies by the Communications Workers of America and other organizations have revealed that monitored workers experience much higher levels of stress, depression and fatigue than un-monitored employees in the same industries.

Despite these findings, computer monitoring technology is used to clock, track and rate the performance of an estimated 10 million to 15 million employees, and some studies contend the practice is even more prevalent. One study says sales of surveillance software are increasing at a rate of 50 percent per year.

A recent survey of employers published in MacWorld magazine showed that 21 percent of respondents have searched employees' computer files, electronic mail or networking communications; 12 percent endorsed monitoring for evaluating employee performance.

"Our impression is that [computer monitoring] is on the rise, largely because of the proliferation of computers and technology that makes it very easy," said Jeff Miller, spokesman for the CWA.

The practice of secretly monitoring employees' work electronically began in the 1970s when telephone companies began installing eavesdropping devices to help in the training of new operators and for quality control. Telephone eavesdropping is most common in industries requiring nearly constant public contact -- such as airline reservations offices, customer service departments and telephone companies -- whereas computer monitoring shows up mostly in clerical and other office support jobs.

But privacy and labor advocates hope that will change this summer.

In May, Sen. Paul Simon, D-Ill., introduced legislation offering protection to workers when employers eavesdrop on telephone calls and computer activities. Called the Privacy for Consumers and Workers Act, the bill would not outlaw monitoring but -- as a "right to know bill" -- it would place stringent requirements on employers to notify their workers when monitoring occurs.


Collecting data on employees is not the only use for covert computer surveillance software, as publishers of these programs are quick to point out. Brian Milburn, president and founder of Solid Oak Software, says the majority of his customers use his PC-Sentry monitoring software for less nefarious -- and more innovative -- purposes:

* Amid nasty divorce proceedings, an embittered husband installed PC-Sentry on his home computer to make sure his soon-to-be-ex-wife wasn't snooping into his financial records. (She was.)

* Suspecting industrial sabotage, a large company used PC-Sentry to trace the source of a data-destroying virus attack on a number of its personal computers, spread throughout the company and not even attached to one another. The software revealed that the night janitor's young son was using the company's computers to play games he had brought from home, inadvertently injecting the virus into each PC.

* The U.S. Secret Service, Pennsylvania State Police, Los Angeles Police Department and other law enforcement agencies regularly use computer monitoring software in criminal investigations, such as those involving data theft.

* Scores of companies have used PC-Sentry to track down theft of company property stored on PCs, such as proprietary customer mailing lists.

* Parents have discovered another use for monitoring software: to snoop on their children's use of the family computer and make sure they're doing their homework.

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