Monday, October 02, 2006


Surveillance Nation

The Washington Post weighs in on workplace surveillance. The recent e-mail "pretexting" scandal at HP supplies the occasion for this article, but one can't help thinking that the 800-pound-gorilla-like presence of the Pentagon and the C.I.A. may predispose D.C.-centered journalists towards pondering the ubiquity of spying. The article twitches watchfully in the direction of the usual suspects - web visit and keystroke monitoring, e-mail scanning, background checks, etc. All of which may well go on simultaneously wherever you work, and no matter who you are.

"Technology has provided a capability that we never had before to check up on employees like never before," HR honcho Manny Avramidis gleefully (if somewhat ungrammatically) boasts. "It's within an organization's right to monitor anything you do during work time using work tools."

And now for the fun part - the stats. 76 percent of firms monitor website connections. 36 percent track ingoing and outgoing attachments, keystrokes and even the overall time spent clicking on the keys. 55 percent review e-mail. And keep in mind this is no idle voyeurism. 26 percent of the firms surveyed have fired employees for Internet abuse, and 25 percent have fired them for e-mail abuse.

The article even fingers (er, names) a corporation that develops software to conduct such surveillance - Websense, Inc. Although Websense is unquestionably more a part of the problem than the solution, it has compiled its own array of interesting stats. 70 percent of companies use some kind of web filtering, and the market for such products is growing 17 percent a year. There is as great a demand for keeping the secrets of a company as for violating the secrets of its employees. Websense's latest creation is a tool that prevents data from leaving companies, rather than just coming in.

Rather surprisingly, a few corporate executives acknowledge that some personal e-mails sent at work are okay, even inevitable. Says one, " today's complex world where we blend personal and corporate lives, it is acceptable to use e-mail and Internet for some personal use." Yeah, like selling one's Mercedes SUV through eBay, if you are in the right income bracket.

The use of background checks is also expanding. Customarily utilized to screen job applicants, background checks are now being performed on some individuals throughout the entire duration of their employment. These checks catch such things as pre-hire criminal convictions that escaped the first round of screening. If work stress induces one to rack up a DUI conviction, or knock the heads off parking meters, Cool Hand Luke-style, the neverending background checks will catch those as well.

Even those key cards so many of us depend on to get in and out of the building don't just unlock doors. They can be used, like homing tags stapled into the ears of polar bears, to track our comings and goings in the cold, cold world of modern commerce. Corporations that employ these tracking devices are able to tell whether or not we are at work at a particular hour, how much time we spend in the company cafeteria - even how many times we go to the toilet. I wonder - are telecommuters required to carry these devices with them so that Big Brother will know when they leave the house to take the kids to school or buy groceries? All I can say in response to this latest development is to quote an audio file that was circulating on PC desktops some years ago, an outtake from The Treasure of Sierra Madre to the effect that, "Badges? We don't need no stinkin' badges..."

"Every Move You Make" from The Washington Post

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