Gartner: Bosses will spy on workers without demanding Facebook passwords

By 2015 60 percent of employers will snoop directly on social network activity, and do it legally

Bad news for those of us who thought it was outrageous that many employers demand that current or prospective employees hand over their Facebook passwords or risk being fired: During the next three years that intrusion, or others very much like it, will be happening a lot more often and will have more serious consequences for employees, according to a report released Tuesday by Gartner, Inc.

The excuse isn't just the need to vet a prospective employee by eavesdropping on the conversations of his or her friends.

The primary reason is to monitor the Internet activity of employees more closely to identify potential sources of data leaks or gaps in security, both of which social networks offer copious supplies.

The difference between reputation management and invasion of privacy

Plenty of companies keep an eye on Facebook and Twitter to make sure no one's slandering them. Only about 10 percent are monitoring either the social networks or activity of end users so they know when some deep dark secret has been posted as part of some employee bragging or grousing about their workloads or lot in life.

By 2015, 60 percent of companies will monitor employees' social-networking activity, Gartner predicted.

The practice of demanding passwords will "gradually fade," according to a statement from Andrew Walls, research VP at Gartner.

Instead, employers will avoid the outrage over direct invasions of privacy such as requiring that employees allow a supervisor to read private Facebook content over their shoulders by searching Facebook directly.

"Employers will continue to pursue greater visibility of social media conversations held by employees, customers and the general public when the topics are of interest to the corporation," in the polite consultantspeak from Andrew Wall.

That means direct snooping using corporate social network accounts and targeted searches for content from both employees and their friends, as well as for markers indicating posted content is data that should never have left the data center.

External security firms are already starting to offer more in-depth monitoring than PR companies and brand-management divisions handle as part of their effort to manage a company's reputation.

The big problem in that, in Gartner's estimation, is not the violation of trust with employees, invasion of privacy or potential violation of laws protecting the privacy of individuals.

No, the problems are that:

  • "Automated, covert monitoring of computer use by staff" can turn up lots of erroneous or irrelevant information, making it harder for security staffers to identify real problems; and
  • That irrelevant information can be "exposed accidentally or become the target of voyeuristic behavior by security staffs" exposing the company to lawsuits.

That's a pretty weak downside for a practice that is so creepy and so tempting to managers whose need for control outweighs their sense of right and wrong.

The Gartner report, btw, was not designed to raise a warning flag over a distasteful practice or warn employees not to snoop.

Its title is "Conduct Digital Surveillance Ethically and Legally: 2012 Update"(registration required).

It's a guide to how to snoop without hitting any major landmines as you do it.

Sounds like a guide to launching a game of Snoop vs. Counter-Snoop as employers use ever-more-sophisticated surveillance and employees struggle to preserve any shred of privacy by using anything they can to hide what they're doing on line, whether it's inappropriate or not.

US workers become the oppressed masses of totalitarian overlords (at work)

But that's a good thing, isn't it?

During the past decade the American workplace has been ravaged by a lingering recession, elimination of permanent employment in favor of perma-temp work and general deterioration of the relationship between workers and employers.

In an atmosphere that poisoned and difficult the one thing that would make everything better would be an arms race between employers buying ever-more-efficient surveillance tools and employees using VPNs, encryption, proxy servers in the same way and for the same reason that third-world dissidents use them – to escape surveillance and punishment for saying what they think, reading what they want and associating (virtually) with anyone they choose.

It's just too bad those things won't be tolerated in the United States any more.

Read more of Kevin Fogarty's CoreIT blog and follow the latest IT news at ITworld. Follow Kevin on Twitter at @KevinFogarty. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-tos, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.

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