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Most of us would be hard pressed to deny our use of the Internet at work for non-work related purposes. With sites like YouTube, eBay, and Facebook and access to instant messaging and email tempting us at every turn, it can be difficult to resist personal Internet usage at work. While not every person has access to the Internet at work, the majority do. As evidenced by various surveys and studies conducted by media research companies, including Nielson, Burst Media, and eMarketer, those workers who do have access are using it.
According to study surveys, the average employee spends between one and two hours each day using the Internet for personal reasons. Use ranges widely from accessing pornographic and gambling sites to playing games and instant messaging friends and co-workers. People also reported using the Internet at work to perform more innocent, but still personal, tasks such as shopping and banking. The reasoning that many give for using the Internet at work ranges from lack of access at home or having a faster connection at work to accessing the Internet as a result of boredom.
Whatever the reasoning and whatever the task, employers are less than pleased when their employees waste company time and money to do non-work related tasks online. Most people would feel the same way if they were a business owner, but business values aside, sometimes the temptation to surf is too great to resist. As a result, a vast number of employers have turned to surveillance technology to monitor their employees’ Internet usage at work.
Though many people choose to debate the ethics of employer surveillance, it is nonetheless an interesting concept. With modern technology, some of it identical to that used by malicious hackers, it is possible for employers to thoroughly monitor the Internet usage of all of their employees down to the keystroke. Though how much or how little an employer chooses to monitor is up to the specific employer, there are basically only a few primary ways to set up workplace surveillance and monitor Internet usage at work.
Internet surveillance and desktop surveillance are the two basic types of employer monitoring. Internet surveillance is the active monitoring of a user’s online activity. A network analyzer, commonly referred to as a packet sniffer, is an example of Internet surveillance. Packet sniffers are commonly used by computer network administrators for diagnostic testing and troubleshooting of network functions, but these programs can be set up like spyware to view and capture all information passing over network connections.
With this type of program, employers can monitor its employees’ Internet usage at work, including website visits, specific page views, emails sent and the information contained in emails, as well as downloads and streaming audio and video events. This type of surveillance allows employers to determine how much time an employee is spending online as well as whether they are viewing material or performing tasks that are inappropriate at work.
Desktop surveillance is another form of computer surveillance, but involves the physical monitoring of a specific computer and every action taken by its user. Desktop monitoring allows an employer’s computer to intercept signals emitted by an employee’s computer through the use of software installed directly on the employee’s machine. Desktop surveillance software can be installed remotely or directly.
Like Internet surveillance, desktop surveillance also effectively allows employers to read email and check out any programs or files opened on their employees’ computers, but it also monitors the computer’s usage while offline. Typically, the system administrator is responsible for monitoring the information gathered by desktop surveillance. Unlike malicious hackers, a company’s system administrator may simply be told to look for very specific actions, such as inappropriate website viewing, or they may even make use of an alert system that sends an alert when inappropriate material or text is transmitted rather than participate in constant monitoring.
While many employers find the costs associated with computer surveillance worthwhile compared to the financial loss of wasted time, some companies find it necessary to cut back on their technology costs and choose not to use surveillance software. This does not mean they don’t monitor their employee’s Internet use. Instead, they just make use of the technology already available to them.
In many companies, all of the employees’ computers are connected to the system administrator’s computer. This allows the system administrator to gain remote access to an employee’s computer, which comes in very handy when a problem within a specific program or operation occurs. However, remote access also allows the system administrator to check log files, including emails, website visits, and even downloads, that the user might believe to be deleted or cleared. This means that even though a downloaded song might have been transferred to your mp3 player and all twelve emails from your best friend were deleted, your boss may still know how you spent your day if the system administrator checks log files after you’ve gone home.
Regardless of the type of monitoring or surveillance an employer utilizes for keeping an eye on their employees’ Internet usage at work, it may interest you to know that rights to privacy do not always apply to workplace surveillance. Ethically speaking, an employer should provide notice in some form or another if computer use is monitored. In fact, most employers do provide such notice, either direct or implied. Direct notice such as a posted sign is obvious. While implied monitoring isn’t really a formal notice, it is safe to assume that if an employer has limited Internet access or has system administrators with remote access, computer use is probably monitored.
As for legal rights, current US laws only prohibit employers for intercepting email while it is in transit, not from reading it prior to sending or once it has been received. The law also prohibits the gathering of personal information such as bank account and credit card information. Though legal issues have arisen from workplace surveillance, most final rulings favor employers because they have a right to protect their business, which is viewed as their property. An employer does have the right to reprimand an employee for inappropriate or abusive Internet use.
In the end, proper use of the Internet at work is the employee’s responsibility. Just like they permit the occasional personal phone call, most employers will not scoff at the occasional personal email. In fact, they might prefer a few emails during the day to a few phone calls because they take up less time. However, if it’s obvious a worker spends more time surfing online retailers, watching videos and sharing jokes than they do performing their job duties, they may just find themselves wishing they had spent a little of their time checking job boards instead.