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Wednesday, 6 June, 2001, 07:06 GMT 08:06 UK
Company crackdown on staff who surf
by BBC News Online's Briony Hale
The business of corporate cyber snooping is getting ever more serious.
This may not surprise too many people, with the dangers of online porn or race-hate sites widely publicised and much debated.
But corporate attention is now turning away from morality issues and homing in on using internet filters to increase profitability.
Imagine the following scenarios:
Just how much more work would get done?
Money down the drain
White collar employers are increasingly alarmed at just how much time is wasted surfing the internet each day.
And the result is a booming internet filtering industry.
"The most common use for businesses to use filtering software is to increase productivity of staff," Surfcontrol's Tom Moriarty told BBC News Online.
According to filtering software firm Websense, the nine-to-five working day accounts for 70% of all internet porn traffic and more than 60% of online shopping purchases.
A separate survey revealed that half of IT managers estimate that employees spend at least one hour a day surfing the Internet for personal use, while two thirds think staff spend as much as an hour a day sending personal emails.
If 1,000 workers each spent an hour a day on the internet, that would cost an average company about $35m a year.
To add insult to injury, job hunting was amongst the most enticing activity for an extended period of cyber slacking.
Over half of employees said they used the internet to book a holiday, 41% to research a hobby, 28% to visit a virtual shop, and 27% to watch a sports event.
Research group International Data Corp (IDC) has revealed that 70% of customers at Charles Schwab - the world's biggest online share trading - carry out their transactions from the office.
By way of an excuse, nine out of ten employees said that that the internet was addictive.
All this may be bad news for both employers and employees, but it is creating a very healthy business for those selling the available software.
IDC predicts that the filtering market will grow by close to 50% per year, reaching $636m (£449m) world-wide by 2004.
There are now more than 30 different companies offering filtering technology, mainly US-centric, but eager to cash in on the growing demand in Europe, especially the UK and Germany.
The depth of the services on offer are mind-blowing.
"You can set different rules for each different user in a company of 10,000 people," said Mr Moriarty.
Employers can chose to veto certain categories of sites ranging from finance and investment sites to dating agencies and estate agents.
And access to each different category of website can be made available on a certain day for a minimum or maximum amount of time.
Treated as enemies
Such monitoring powers have led to much concern from the unions and other professional bodies.
"The best relationships in the workplace are those that are based on trust," said a spokeswoman from TUC.
MSF, the union for skilled and professional people, says that modern surveillance techniques are resulting in intimidation and stress for the employee.
"The rhetoric of many employers is that their employees are their greatest assets. But they are treating their staff like they are the company's greatest enemy," Peter Skyte, MSF's National Secretary told BBC News Online.
"If an employer doesn't trust you, then why should you trust them?" added Mr Skyte.
There is also a strong case to argue that employees should be allowed greater freedom in the workplace now that a growing number of companies expect work to intrude - usually by means of a mobile phone - into personal time.
Legitimate snooping reasons
Companies employing snooping software cite valid reasons in addition to squeezing more work out of staff.
Firms can end up being sued if employees are free to download and distribute offensive material in the office.
And bandwidth is also a serious issue for many companies.
The software can give IT managers the ability to see where bandwidth is being used up and adapt the restrictions to make sure that the internet is running at optimum level when key transactions are carried out.
But while companies and the unions wait for more guidance from the EU and data protection acts, the best advice for employees is to be very aware when and how Big Brother is at work.
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