Big Brother Really <i>Is</i> Watching

working on a computer CBS

Here's a question for the Internet age: Do you ever use your company computer for personal projects? According to a recent survey, 90 per cent of us do, and don't think employers don't know it. CBS News Correspondent John Roberts has the story of how companies are going online to keep employees in line.

Day-trading, shopping, gambling, even pornography: There's a lot to be done on the Internet The problem is that much of it is being done nine to five.

The Boston-based firm, Modern Continental Construction, wants to make sure employees aren't surfing when they should be working. So everyone with Internet access is placed on software surveillance.

We wanted to make sure that people were using the Internet as a work tool and not as a recreational tool," says Brian Mcnamara, Modern Continental's vice president.

To do that, the company installed Internet Manager, a system that scans for and identifies 'cyber-loafers.'

"We look at it everyday, look for certain warnings," says Gary Jones, the company's Information Technology Manager. "The main screen of the software has warnings that will alert me to people who may have surfed for a longer period of time, which we can check to make sure it was business-related."

While it's unusual to publicly admit that they're doing it, it's not rare for companies to electronically peer over their employees' shoulders. One survey found that nearly 50 percent of companies track their employees' online whereabouts. So software with names like Disc Tracy and Cyber Patrol are cashing in on worries that the internet has become the water cooler of the new millennium.

Meanwhile, firms like Websense are creating electronic barriers to Websites that companies want off-limits.

"Monitoring by employers has become even more pervasive than I ever dreamed about," says privacy advocate Louis Maltby of the National Work Rights Institute. He complains that snooping on an employee's travels in cyberspace smacks of Big Brother, and that the workplace surveillance that started with security cameras has gone too far, eroding employee rights in the workplace.

"Surveillance almost always comes with the best of intentions," says Maltby. "But the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Monitoring isn't always wrong; there's always a tradeoff. There's always a price, and the price is frequently privacy.

But "the Internet is not private," says Jim Gavell, who markets a program that can put the computer screens of four workers at the boss's fingertips. It gives employers the ultimate 'gotcha,' and Gavell is proud of that.

"The workplace is not a democracy," he says. "When you show up for work in the morning,... you've given up some of your constitutional rights in exchange for a paycheck."

Electronic monitoring led Xerox to fire 40 employees for visiting pornography, gambling and shopping sites on comany time. At the NY Times, 23 people were fired for abusive e-mail.

Computer consultant Kent Jones, executive director of a company called Telemate, helps employers keep detailed reports on e-mail and online visits. Mostly it's an effort to screen out material which could land a company in court.

"Even if the company was not condoning the downloading of illegal material in the workplace, the simple fact that it was their network makes them liable for their employees actions," he says.

Under the law, companies are perfectly within their rights to monitor computer use, and most are up front with their employees about it. At Modern Continental, a warning pops up each time workers sign on, reminding them that browsing out of bounds could get them fired.

"The people at Modern are hard-working people," says Gary Jones. "We trust them. It's just a preventative measure, and the Information Technology Department doesn't really have the time to delve into all the details, and we haven't had to--which is good."

  • CBSNews.com staff CBSNews.com staff

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