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Wednesday, 3 May, 2000, 17:43 GMT 18:43 UK
E-mail: Our right to write?

Monitoring personal e-mails is no joking matter
Before you hit "Ctrl + Enter" to send off your next e-mail from work, beware, you may unwittingly be posting your letter of resignation.

The latest generation of e-mail scanners allows employers to sift your correspondence for words deemed unsuitable.

These words can be given a score value, with each use bringing the e-mailer closer to the dole queue.

The list of suspect words can be fine-tuned to hunt out sexist or racist content or to track the movement of pornography or confidential information in and out of a company.
President Clinton
"What do you call an Essex girl... "

If your employer is keen to put a dramatic halt to the work hours wasted sending on puerile e-jokes, using the phrase "Essex girl" in your next e-mail will set the alarm bells ringing.

Philip Ryan, from IT company Peapod, says in reality the systems he develops are more about protecting companies than snooping on employees.

"Our clients are very worried. They don't want to be liable for things written in e-mails. People do not want to end up in court and lose money."

Deleted items

Mr Ryan points to the case of insurers Norwich Union, which had to stump up 450,000 after its employees sent out e-mails insulting a market rival.

Scanning systems can also be configured to keep the rising tide of junk mail at bay.

Phrases such as "free offer" and "money back" identify spam messages for deletion, saving valuable storage space for more vital communications.

Mr Ryan says tracking the illegal passage of pornography via workstations is even easier.
Queen visits
You never know who's watching

"Pictures in an e-mail are a dead give away. In most people's jobs receiving colour photographs is just not in their work."

If a company does choose to crackdown on all personal e-mail use, even the most imaginative use of language won't fool the cyber censor for long.

"I've developed a fairly extensive vocabulary of swear words while compiling these filter lists," says Mr Ryan.

Subject: Overreaction

Last year, the New York Times sacked 40 workers for passing "inappropriate" e-mails, but Professor Helen Petric says UK employers may be overreacting to the e-mail issue.

Ms Petric recently conducted a survey of e-mail content on behalf of MSN.

[Personal e-mails] should be regarded as a small perk of the job, one people should not get too hot under the collar about

Professor Helen Petric

"There was a bit of sexism and some fairly pathetic jokes. Companies are getting over-excited about this."

The University of Hertfordshire academic suggests employers' time might be put to better uses than trying to halt their workers' personal e-mails.

"Most e-mails are between 50 and 100 words. It doesn't take very long to read or type them, especially compared to the time a person could spend on the telephone."

Hot under the white-collar

Ms Petric says e-mail has proved an invaluable tool to workers.

"It should be regarded as a small perk of the job, one people should not get too hot under the collar about."
Office workers
"How many men does it take to change... "

Yaman Akdeniz, director of Leeds University's Cyber Rights and Cyber Liberties centre, agrees that personal e-mails should be tolerated as long as productivity does not suffer.

As for the content of that correspondence, Mr Akdeniz says clear and concise guidelines need to be agreed.

"You should know what to do and what not to do."

With technology able to read your e-mails, track your internet use and even record your keyboard activity, Mr Akdeniz says some accountability needs to introduced into the surveillance system.

He warns monitoring could be used to strengthen the case for dismissing an employee who managers have taken a dislike to.

The Institute of Employment Rights has been lobbying for just such a change in the law.

The charity says while companies rush to protect themselves from legal actions arising from employee e-mails and internet use, workers rights and privacy are being ignored.

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06 Aug 98 | Sci/Tech
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