Employee surveillance: Where do you draw the line?

By Sacha Cohen, InfoWorld |  Business

Sometimes being an IT manager can feel more like being a cybercop than a tech professional. That's because one of IT's roles is often to make sure that employees aren't abusing e-mail privileges or surfing objectionable sites while at work. And although employer's interests, the protection of intellectual property, and productivity need to be considered, so does the company's corporate culture and employees' privacy rights. As some recent high-profile cases prove, it's a murky arena where the line is blurred between visions of Big Brother on the one hand and a free-for-all liability nightmare on the other.

Indeed, the numbers demonstrate that surfing the Web at work has become as popular as gossiping by the watercooler. Computer Economics (CE), a Carlsbad, Calif.-based research firm, estimates that companies lost $5.3 billion to recreational Web surfing in 1999. "The illegitimate use of the Web and the personal use of e-mail by employees have become commonplace. When the boss is not around, improper use of the Web is normal," says Michael Erbschloe, vice president of research at CE.

Partly out of necessity and partly as a preventative measure, two-thirds of major American firms now do some type of in-house electronic surveillance, and 27 percent of all firms surveyed monitor e-mail, the American Management Association reported in April 2000. And although human resources and legal counsel play a large role when it comes to setting and implementing policy, IT often carries the greatest responsibility as the implementors of snooping technology. So how do IT managers balance individual privacy and the need to maintain corporate security? Very carefully.

Who draws the line and where?

Of high-profile cases where employees were fired for misusing company e-mail, the 1999 episode at an administrative center for The New York Times, in Norfolk, Va., is perhaps the most culturally intriguing. After all, this is a media empire built on principles of free speech. An incident at the Chevron Corporation involved a $2.2 million lawsuit brought in 1995 by employees who were offended by an e-mail joke titled "25 Reasons Why Beer is Bettter Than Women."

Would the facts of e-mail usage transgressions at either company bring similar responses and reactions elsewhere? Perhaps. But these two cases highlight an interesting fact: Both management and employees can claim violation of e-mail or Internet usage policies. And IT is often stuck in the middle.

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