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Think before you surf at work

Employer monitoring of Internet, e-mail, phone use becomes more intrusive

Hanah Cho

On the Job

September 25, 2006

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Think twice about what you write in your e-mails, which Web sites you browse and what you say on the telephone.

The recent snooping scandal at Hewlett-Packard got me thinking about workplace privacy, or the lack thereof.

HP's case involved hired investigators who used pretexting, or getting information under false pretenses, to obtain phone records of its board directors, two employees and several journalists. It's an extreme -- and possible illegal -- case of employer surveillance.

But how many of us are really aware of the extent of employer monitoring at our own offices? Do you know if your boss is tracking every keystroke? What about Internet use?

Lewis Maltby, an attorney and president of the National Workrights Institute in Princeton, N.J., says most workers know monitoring occurs, but "they have no idea how intrusive the monitoring is."

"Almost all employers monitor today, and the IT employees doing the monitoring can open anything and everything they choose. They don't need a reason to monitor," he says.

Here's the reality: Seventy-six percent of employers monitor workers' Web surfing to prevent inappropriate use, according to the 2005 Electronic Monitoring & Surveillance Survey by the American Management Association and the ePolicy Institute. Computer monitoring includes tracking keystrokes and time as well as reviewing computer files.

And 51 percent of employers track the amount of time workers spend on the phone, up from 9 percent in 2001. More companies are using video surveillance to prevent theft, violence and sabotage on the job: 51 percent in 2005 compared with 33 percent in 2001.

Employers have legitimate reasons for watching and tracking workers' computer and telephone use.

For starters, managers are concerned about productivity. (Admit it, who doesn't check their personal e-mail account or even shop online at work once in a while?)

Another factor is increased global competition, says Christine Walters, a human resources and employment law consultant in Glyndon. That's leading employers to be more vigilant about securing intellectual property and client lists. Many use monitoring to address worker safety, too, she says.

"When people talk about employer monitoring, it's like, 'Oh, it's so bad,' " she says. "It's very often borne out of concern to protect employee safety and protect property."

Still, employees have few rights when it comes to privacy at work. Except for a federal wiretapping law prohibiting employers from eavesdropping on workers' personal calls, few laws regulate workplace monitoring, says Maltby of the National Workrights Institute.

"As a practical matter, employees should assume that they have no privacy at work," he says. "[But] that's not the way it ought to be."

So what can workers do?

Both Walters and Maltby advise workers to find out about their employer's policy on workplace monitoring and surveillance.

On a more practical level, take common sense measures, like limiting personal use of work phones and computers. And don't say or write anything you would be embarrassed for your boss or colleagues to hear or read.

The Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, a nonprofit consumer advocacy group, provides more information on this topic in its Web site.

What do you think of employer monitoring? Or anything else at work? Send your stories, tips and questions to working@baltsun.com. Please include your first name and your city.

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