Monitoring of employee e-mail, Web use escalates

By Linda Rosencrance, Computerworld online |  Business

According to a study released by the Denver-based Privacy Foundation, 14 million employees, or just over one-third of the online workforce in the U.S., have their Internet or e-mail use monitored by their employers.

Worldwide, the number of employees under such surveillance is about 27 million, the study reports.

The availability of inexpensive technology is driving the growth of employee monitoring, according to Andrew Schulman, the Privacy Foundation's chief researcher.

Within the past few years, employee monitoring, as measured by the sales of surveillance software, has increased at least twice as fast as the number of U.S. employees with Internet access, according to the study. Worldwide sales of employee-monitoring software are estimated at US$140 million a year, or about $5.25 per monitored employee per year, the foundation said.

The use of such technology raises the issue of employees' privacy in the workplace.

At the very least, employers should let their employees know that their Internet and e-mail use is being monitored, the foundation said. Employees should also find out if their employer is monitoring their e-mail and Internet use, and determine which monitoring system is being used.

"While employers may fear that putting such knowledge in the hands of employees may allow employees to circumvent these systems, the practice of keeping employees uninformed about the details of monitoring may be tantamount to entrapment," according to the report.

The report said that a "splash-screen" warning each time an employee starts his computer is the minimum requirement for adequate notice of continuous monitoring of online activities.

However, such notice may not be enough. Employees should also be able to see, review and append comments to the logs and reports that have been kept by employers on their e-mail and Internet activities, the study said.

The foundation is also concerned that although monitoring the workplace to catch "slackers" may seem judicious to an employer, it may also create an atmosphere of hostility and suspicion.

Andrew Shen, a policy analyst at the Washington-based Electronic Privacy Information Center, said he agrees with the foundation's essential claim that "a lot of what is driving [employee monitoring] is that the technology is becoming cheaper and easier to use."

Shen said the only way to regulate privacy in the workplace is through legislation. While the issue has been taken up by Congress, Shen said it has not gone very far because it's being driven by the employers, not employees.

"There's really not much an employee can do," Shen said. "It's not fair to the employee. An employee works 45 hours a week and finds he is being monitored 45 hours a week. What can he do? Quit his job?"

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