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Costs, caution spur monitoring of workers

Employee productivity, corporate liability and bandwidth limitations are the top reasons that companies decide to track employees' Web and e-mail habits.

Employee productivity, corporate liability and bandwidth limitations are the top reasons that companies decide to monitor their employees, according to several sellers of Web and e-mail monitoring software.

"Companies are not doing as well as they did last year," said Darryl Gordon, director of marketing for Websense, the No. 1 maker of software used to monitor how employees use the Internet. "Any way to make sure their employees are productive can be helpful."

The comments follow a report from the nonprofit Privacy Foundation that found up to 14 million workers in the United States--one out of every three employees who are online--have their e-mail and Internet use monitored every day.

The study, published Monday, blames the proliferation of such privacy-invasive technology on its low cost.

"I couldn't get over how cheap this stuff is," said Andrew Schulman, chief researcher at the Privacy Foundation's workplace study group. The result, he added, is that monitoring software is quickly becoming commonplace at corporations.

His advice: "Don't do anything on the Web or in e-mail at work that you wouldn't do with someone looking over your shoulder."

Although low cost may be driving the software into the mainstream, distrust of their own employees seems to be driving businesses to adopt monitoring software.

"Helping avoid corporate liability is a very big issue," Websense's Gordon said. The company's software is used to manage the Internet connections for more than 8.25 million workers. About 70 percent of those workers are also tracked through the software's monitoring feature, which logs which Web sites they visit.

Euphemistically calling its software "employee Internet management," Websense can limit access to 77 different categories of sites--with at least five for porn alone--and log where employees have gone and how long they spent there.

The company creates business by convincing companies that employees are irresponsibly using the Internet.

"With summer vacation season in full swing, employees are flocking to travel Web sites in record numbers," began a recent Websense release. "But unless corporations actively manage worker Internet use, planning vacations on the company dime is no pleasure cruise for businesses."

The release went on to chalk up $18 billion in damages to employees making travel plans.

E-mail is a problem as well, said Chris Miller, senior product manager for software maker Symantec, creator of the MailGear e-mail-monitoring product. MailGear is the No. 2 such software, according to the Privacy Foundation's study.

Based on filters commonly used to eradicate viruses from e-mail before it ever reaches a person's PC, MailGear can block or flag any message with certain keywords.

"If I wanted to get it down to the level where it tags every e-mail with the word 'resume,' it could happen," Miller said. "You can set it up to do almost anything. It's very flexible."

Gartner analyst Joyce Graff says it's no surprise that companies feel themselves between a rock and a hard place on (the privacy) issue.

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Most companies use the software to stop viruses and catch e-mails that could lead to lawsuits, but some go further.

"You definitely have some customers who will try to filter out jokes," Miller said. "There are companies that have sensitivities to pornographic e-mails."

Although the software may cost little to install and run, he added, actually using employees to comb through records and closely monitor workers would sap too many company resources.

"If a company tried to have a zero-tolerance sort of policy, it would probably not be in business very long," he said.

The Privacy Foundation's Schulman agreed that employees' best friend in the privacy fight may be the cost of such detailed monitoring.

"That may be what is keeping us from '1984,'" he said. "It's just too expensive and too much trouble to track everyone. It's just not practical to be Big Brother--for now."