Companies can monitor their staffs' every keystroke. Are rights violated?

Gotcha!

Snoopware on the job

August 02, 1999|By Michael Stroh | Michael Stroh,SUN STAFF

He's doing it again.

Shane Poole had a hunch one of his employees was busy jabbering away on the Internet when he should have been busy working. A vice president at American Metal Fabricators in Prince Frederick, Poole was peeved: Was he paying someone to slack off all day?

To find out, Poole rigged the company computer network with Silent Watch -- software that allows employers to see every keystroke workers make, every online journey they take on their PC.

Gotcha. Sitting in his office, 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 said.

Beware, all clock punchers: 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. And there's little you can do to stop it.

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.

"Companies will say, 'We have cameras right behind our people, but I can't see what they're doing on their computer,'" said Roy Young of Adavi Inc., the small start-up that makes Silent Watch in Dunkirk, in Calvert County.

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.

Businesses have good reason to fret. When workers circulate lewd e-mail jokes or X-rated Web sites, it opens them to multimillion-dollar harassment lawsuits. The discovery of an off-color electronic message at the St. Louis investment firm Edward Jones in April forced the company to dismiss 19 employees and to reprimand 41 others.

But pornography is only part of the problem. Companies worry that employees could use the Internet to spill trade secrets or sensitive financial data. They're also concerned about lost productivity. Sports, stock brokerages and job boards rank among the top Web sites visited by workers on the job, according to a new Computerworld survey. Some companies are clamping down, configuring surveillance software to block access to such sites or noting each time an employee visits one.

"We want to make sure we're getting everything out of employees that we're supposed to be," said Steve Sullivan, vice president of investment technology at T. Rowe Price in Baltimore, which monitors its employees' e-mail and Internet use.

Businesses aren't the only ones embracing software surveillance. School administrators, who regularly sweep student lockers for signs of trouble, are now using the technology to do the same to student computers.

"The students truly know a lot more about computers than the teachers," said Principal Pat Brooks of Bowie High School, which in May installed surveillance software in its computer labs. "This is one way for us to stay a step ahead."

The software Bowie High uses triggers an alarm bell on the teacher's computer if a student visits a Web site deemed inappropriate. It also tracks a student's every keystroke for words that might indicate trouble is brewing -- terms such as "drugs," "suicide," "gun" or "kill."

Teachers at Bowie High have nabbed a few cyber-truants. One boy, unaware that his every online move in the school computer lab was being watched, quietly clicked over to a pro wrestling Web site during a lecture. Milliseconds later, an alert popped up on the teacher's computer screen, jolting him into action.

But Brooks says there's more to electronic surveillance in the classroom than playing Big Brother. Because the software allows teachers to see the computer screens of as many as 49 students at once, instructors can teach even large classes effectively.

"Imagine being able to look at a screen, see what every student in the class is doing and say, 'Pat, that's not the correct solution,'" said Brooks. "To me, this is a learning tool."

School is one thing. But the software's Big Brother elements are making some workers and privacy rights activists bristle about its use in the workplace.

"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 last fall he was accused of being an "Internet abuser" after he visited sports Web sites on his lunch hour.

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