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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.


Staff are being treated like they are the company's greatest enemy

Peter Skyte
MSF Union
The latest survey has revealed that 75% of IT managers and corporate internet users think that monitoring and filtering procedures are an absolute necessity.

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.

Tightening controls

Imagine the following scenarios:

  • Web-based e-mail services, such as hotmail.com or aol.com are mysteriously unavailable.

  • The Big Brother webcam triggers an alarm bell with your IT Manager who sits downstairs and could report you to the company bigwig.

    Research reveals that...
    Nine out of ten employees using the internet at work think that it is addictive

  • The unobtrusive BBC News Online cricket scorecard that sits quietly in the corner of your screen is blank, even though the match has already begun.

  • And online share trading - a sackable offence according to your contract - is immediately visible to your line manager.

  • Your are allowed two breaks each day when your machine magically drops its regulatory control and releases you into online freedom - for ten minutes at a time.

    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.

    Using the internet at work
    52% booking holidays
    41% research a hobby
    28% Online shopping
    27% Sport
    And a spate of recent research has confirmed the worst fears of suspicious employers.

    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.

    Booming industry

    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.

    Research reveals that...
    60% of all online shopping happens at work
    And SurfControl - which saw its sales of filtering product grow by 326% to $10.5m between December and February - says that the market is still "massively under-penetrated".

    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.


    The best relationships in the workplace are those that are based on trust

    TUC
    The feeling of being watched and monitored is unlikely to create good company morale and contented staff.

    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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    See also:

    15 Dec 00 | Sci/Tech
    Press send to censor
    18 Apr 01 | Sci/Tech
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    01 Jun 01 | Sci/Tech
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