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No overtime for corporate Big Brother

U.S. companies have not increased Internet surveillance of employees in response to the government's anti-terrorism efforts, a new report asserts.

WASHINGTON--U.S. companies have not increased Internet surveillance of employees in response to the government's anti-terrorism efforts, a new report asserts.

The General Accounting Office, an auditing arm of Congress, said in a report released Monday that corporate-level monitoring of e-mail and Web use does not appear to have changed since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

"None of the employers we interviewed had increased the amount or type of information they gathered on employees? use of e-mail, the Internet or computer files," the report said. Under the USA Patriot Act, signed by President Bush a year ago, law enforcement received more power to conduct Internet surveillance and seek information from private companies.

Interviews with government officials, privacy experts and executives at 14 Fortune 1000 companies also showed that, contrary to popular belief, few employees are disciplined for inappropriate Internet behavior.

"The total number of investigations was very small as a proportion of the number of employees with access to e-mail (or) the Internet," the report said. "The number of annual investigations... represented less than 1 percent of the total domestic employees at these companies. For example, one company with more than 50,000 domestic employees reported 72 e-mail investigations and 48 Internet investigations in calendar year 2001."

The late Rep. Patsy Mink, the senior Democrat on a House work force subcommittee, had asked the GAO to investigate electronic workplace monitoring of Americans.

Under current law in general and the Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986 in particular, employers can monitor all Internet activity of their employees. Because companies own their computers and networks, courts have ruled that employees should have no "reasonable expectation of privacy" at work.

Of the 14 companies interviewed, the GAO found that all collected and stored employees' e-mail and information about what Web sites were visited. The report said that "six of 14 companies told us that they routinely performed additional analyses on the stored information to determine if employees were misusing company computer resources."