Your boss is really making you angry, so you decide to air your feelings in an e-mail message from work to your best friend. That’s probably not a smart move, because chances are you are being watched.
More than a third of the online work force have their Web surfing and e-mail messaging monitored continuously by employers, according to a new study.
The study, conducted by the Denver-based Privacy Foundation, estimates that 14 million online employees are under continuous surveillance. This is made possible by commercially available software that costs companies an average of $5.25 per monitored employee each year.
If companies can monitor their employees at a low cost, they will, said Andrew Schulman, chief researcher at the Privacy Foundation, an independent, nonpartisan research organization that issued its findings Monday. Whether or not they should is another matter, he said.
“It’s a lot cheaper to monitor e-mail than to monitor a telephone conversation,” said Mr. Schulman. “But why not put cameras every five feet? The solution feels very disproportionate.”
Monitoring employees is a cost-effective way that companies can protect themselves from liability, said Ken Hetzer, president of TFS Technology, a software-development company in Manassas.
Surveillance technology does not just monitor employees. It can also prevent them from sending e-mail containing forbidden words or phrases, and prevent employees from downloading potentially inappropriate Web sites, Mr. Hetzer said.
Lawsuits can cost organizations a tremendous amount of money, time and resources, so businesses must take the initiative in preventing offensive material from getting into their computer systems, said Mr. Hertzer.
Several Washington-area companies closely monitor their employees’ Web use at work.
“We have a code of business conduct,” said Alfred King, spokesman for Fannie Mae in Washington. “Computers and phones are for business only. They can be monitored for inappropriate use.”
Improper use of company resources can result in reprimands and even termination, said Mr. King. All employees find out about this monitoring when they all sign an agreement to abide by company policy when hired, said Mr. King.
If you work at Adworks, Daniel Johnson may be watching you.
“At any moment, I can look at who is at what site,” said Mr. Johnson, information-systems manager for Adworks, a Washington advertising and marketing agency.
Mr. Johnson said he does not do random checks on employees. But if he needs to, he will, and he can access records of Web sites his employees visited in the past.
Adworks also uses fire-wall technology to prevent its employees from accessing personal e-mail accounts while at work. The company does this to protect against viruses that can infiltrate computer systems via personal accounts, Mr. Johnson said.
“All companies should think about having a fire wall,” said Mr. Johnson. “If an employee has offensive material, the company could be sued.”
Employees at Adworks know that their e-mail is monitored, Mr. Johnson said. But the employees may not realize that the company logs all of the Web sites they visit, he said.
Employers need to make sure their employees know how closely they are being continuously monitored, the foundation said. Employees should understand that this monitoring can be used to justify dismissals and layoffs, the organization warned.