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Tuesday, 9 July, 2002, 11:24 GMT 12:24 UK
Seeking smut and sacking staff
Close-up of metal sieve
Filtering systems are becoming more common
Increasing numbers of companies are looking over the electronic shoulders of their staff to watch where they go on the web.

Many have installed filtering systems to crack down on those who waste company time by spending hours browsing around the web or those who look at or download inappropriate material.

Computer systems can also be used to ensure that staff are not trying to defraud the company or sell its secrets to rivals.

The filters can also be used to ensure that e-mail messages carrying viruses do not reach workers who might inadvertently set them off and knock out internal computer networks.

Long look

In October 2000, UK employers received the right to look at what staff got up to on the internet or what they said in e-mail messages.

The regulations were designed to help some industries, such as financial firms, comply with laws governing good business practice without falling foul of laws on privacy.

Automated production line, Eyewire
Ford gave workers time to delete porn
Many firms are also using them to ensure that employees using the net and e-mail do not bring the good name of a firm into disrepute and that they do not flout company policies on responsible net use.

Companies such as Websense and SurfControl produce filtering systems that block access to a long list of sites considered to hold objectionable material.

But the huge number of pornographic websites and the fact that they regularly move means that the lists do not stop access to all of them.

There have been regular reports of firms sacking staff for downloading porn during office hours.

In August 2000, Orange sacked 40 staff for looking at smut during the working day and civil servants working at 10 Downing Street and the Scottish Executive have suffered the same fate.

Data forensics firm Vogon reports that 90% of the hard disks it is asked to look at during investigations have pornography on them of one sort or another.

Stopping shopping

Filtering systems can also be used to limit the times that staff can look at non-work related websites.

Some companies only let staff look at online shopping, sports and holiday sites during lunch hours and after the work day finishes.

E-mail messages are most often scrutinised to stop viruses propagating and crippling a company's internal computer network or destroying vital records.

Most virus scanners work by looking for telltale chunks of computer code found in other malicious programs.

E-mail has rapidly become the ideal way for a virus writer to spread their creation and the numbers of malicious programs in circulation is growing all the time.

Anti-virus firm MessageLabs recently reported that in the first six months of 2002 it caught as many viruses as it did during the whole of 2001.

Many firms consult the records that computer systems keep about the data traffic they pass around when searching for evidence of fraud or other criminal acts by employees.

Vogon has set up a whistleblower website for any employee or employer that wants help investigating wrong-doing on their premises.

See also:

03 May 00 | UK
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05 Oct 00 | Science/Nature
15 Dec 00 | Science/Nature
17 Jan 01 | UK
01 Sep 00 | UK
10 Jul 00 | Scotland
21 Aug 01 | Business
10 Aug 01 | Science/Nature
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