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Companies ramping up e-mail monitoring

Survey finds that 63 percent of companies employ or plan to employ personnel to monitor employee e-mail.

The boss is getting serious about e-mail snooping.

A new study has found that 63 percent of corporations with 1,000 or more employees either employ or plan to employ staff to read or otherwise analyze outbound e-mail. The report, released Monday by e-mail security specialist Proofpoint, said 36.1 percent of companies employ staff to monitor e-mail today, with another 26.5 percent saying they intend to employ such staff in the future.

In companies with more than 20,000 employees, this practice is even more common, according to the survey, which involved 332 technology decision-makers at large U.S. companies. Forty percent of those large companies employ staff to monitor e-mail today, and an additional 32 percent plan to employ such staff in the future.

According to the study, companies are concerned about making sure e-mail isn't used to leak company trade secrets or other intellectual property, and about complying with financial disclosure regulations. Another factor is preventing confidential internal memos from getting zapped outside the company, according to the report.

The study comes amid a rise in workplace monitoring. The number of employers who monitor the amount of time employees spend on the phone and track the numbers called has jumped to 51 percent, up from 9 percent in 2001, according to a study released last month by the American Management Association and the ePolicy Institute.

That earlier study also found that 51 percent of the companies surveyed use video monitoring to counter theft, violence and sabotage, up from 33 percent in 2001. In addition, it said companies "also keep an eye on e-mail, with 55 percent retaining and reviewing messages."

Though liability and regulatory issues may be convincing companies to peek in on their employees, such surveillance raises privacy concerns. Employers can monitor workers to a greater degree these days, thanks to newer technologies such as keystroke-logging software and satellite global positioning systems that can track a cell phone user's whereabouts.

According to the new Proofpoint survey, more than one in three companies investigated a suspected e-mail leak of confidential information in the last 12 months. And, it said, more than one in four companies have fired an employee for violating e-mail policies in the last 12 months.