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The Toronto Sun CareerConnection

Big brother is watching you

By Noreen Farooqui
Special to The Sun

We've all done it: Taken time out of the workday to check personal e-mail; maybe surfed the net on the lookout for the next career move; some have even started to keep a blog of their day-to-day work activities -- slagging co-workers and monster bosses.

A 2003 Ipsos-Reid study reveals that Canadian adults who have Internet access at work spend an average of 4.5 hours a week surfing the net for personal reasons, adding up to a cumulative 1.6 billion hours per 50-week work year for all Canadians.

Think all this Internet activity is going unnoticed by management? Think again. It's Orwellian but true: Big Brother is watching you.

The American Management Association (AMA) indicates that 77.7% of major U.S. companies monitor employees' online activity. And, a survey from AMA, and The ePolicy Institute reveals that 22% of companies have terminated an employee for e-mail infractions.

Companies realize that Internet abuse during work hours is affecting productivity. As a result, companies are increasingly monitoring employee Internet use.

Toronto-based Internet lawyer Javad Heydary says that some employers have guidelines regarding online use.

"Most larger companies have a policy in place. At the time they hire the employee, they give the employee Internet use and e-mail use policy, and part of that policy is that the employer has a right to monitor their activities," Heydary says.

Websense is one Internet monitoring product that public relations manager Jennifer Culter says enables the company to manage what an employee views online.
Internet lawyer

"It blocks the employee from accessing certain sites or gives them a quota time," Culter says. "With Websense, companies can block up to 11 million sites in 90 categories." Some of these sites include pornography and gambling.

Because companies are liable for the content of messages employees send to each other and to external parties, Heydary says protocols should be in place.

Randy Webber, a systems officer for the Ministry of Education in Milton , recalls a time when he sent an e-mail containing profanity. "I sent an e-mail outside of the ministry, if I had sent it internally it would go through, but because I sent it outside of the government, it got blocked, and the only thing I could figure is that I used the f-word and it turned out that's what it was."

Webber says students in his schools have been suspended for Internet mischief including downloading a version of Netscape that would bypass the school's Internet web security. Another youth had a more sophisticated scheme.

"We had one kid who was installing a password retrieving system in some computers. Somebody would log in and it would collect their log-in name and their password."

While security concerns are valid in a technological era, there are instances when employers take surveillance measures too far.

"In Alberta , an employer had used a software device called Keystroke Logging," Heydary says. "Basically it's a software that an employer can install on an employee's PC. It can track everything they type. The privacy commissioner said that's not acceptable; that's an intrusive way of monitoring that employee."

Heydary says both companies and employees are responsible for playing it safe when it comes to appropriate Internet use.

"If an employer has a policy in place, make sure employees know about that policy and know that they could be monitored," Heydary says. "If (the employer) has two choices in the technology, make sure you use the one that's least intrusive. I think if employers follow these steps, they should be fine.

"Now, for employees, I would just tell them, assume you're always being monitored. I'm sorry to say that, but that is the reality most of us are working under these days."

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