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Surfers, beware: the boss can see you

Internet libertarians argue that parents should use technology to police their children's access, but what some might not realize is that their bosses may be planning to do the same thing.

Internet libertarians argue that parents should use technology to police their children's access, but what some dedicated Net surfers might not realize is that their bosses may be planning to do the same thing.

Motivated by studies that say employees are spending lots of company time looking at Web sites unrelated to their jobs, businesses are increasingly turning to technology, such as the Net Access Manager software released this week by SeQuel, to regulate their employees' Internet access.

Net Access Manager, for example, lets employees monitor use of the Internet by an individual employee, a department, or the entire company. The filtering engine provides employers with charts detailing exactly which sites are visited and by whom, all without the employee knowing they are being watched.

Beyond just monitoring access, the software also allows employers to actually block employees from getting to specific Web sites, Telnet, Newsgroups, online services, or even email. Only if they try to enter a prohibited site will employees learn that they are being monitored.

The software monitors usage without slowing down browsing speed or accessibility, according to SeQuel. Net Access Manager officials said the technology will be most effective if it is run on a dedicated server inside a corporate firewall because the technology tracks all inbound and outbound traffic by IP addresses.

Net Access Manager runs on Windows NT, OS/2, Novell, and Unix servers. Windows NT software will sell for $1,095 when it ships at the end of the month, according to SeQuel officials. Beta versions can be downloaded from the company's Web site.

SeQuel is not the only company to help employers rein in what they perceive as productivity lost to the Net. Webster Network Strategies' WebTrack service can provide an employer with a report of sites visited by individuals or departments and the amount of time spent at each site. The reports break sites into 16 categories, including sex, gambling, alternative journals, job search, and sports. Like Net Access Manager, WebTrack also lets employers block selected sites.

About 100 companies now use WebTrack, said Julie Novak, Webstar Network sales and marketing manager. WebTrack reports indicate that the most popular sites contain sexually related content, followed by sports. While many companies initially turned to the service out of fear that their employees were spending work time looking at sex-related sites, Novak says employers are worried that workers are just wasting time, period.

"We have found that sex isn't the problem anymore--productivity is," she said. A recent analysis found that one company was losing $127,000 a year to the Web in lost work hours.

Employers have to spend to figure out how much they're losing: companies with 250 workers average $4,995 annually for Web Track reports and those with 500 average $6,995.

Many companies still hesitate to block site access, however, afraid that such actions would cause an anti-Big Brother revolt. But Novak believes that many more eventually will start regulating access on top of monitoring it.

"Most of the companies don't know how to deal with this yet, but when they find out that a lot of employees are sending out resumes on company time they respond," Novak said.

Before they take that step though, many employers are trying simply to embarrass their employees off non-work sites during work hours. "One company asked for a list of their top ten surfers and posted their names on their intranet with the sites they visited," Novak said. "They weren't happy."

Not all employers are worried about where their workers are surfing. Some say it is important for employees to become comfortable with the technology.

"We encourage our employees to become more familiar with the Internet. We don't consider frivolous usage to be a problem," said Tim Breuer, an IBM spokesman. "We don't plan to monitor our employees in the future."

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