Companies police employees on Net surfing

Published Nov. 10, 1995|Updated Oct. 4, 2005

For sometimes an hour or more a day while at work, Marc Rotenberg is logged on to the Internet Chess Club.

Assuming the identity of "Dr. R," Rotenberg, executive director of Electronic Privacy in Communications, a public policy group in Washington, takes on the likes of "Flaming Skull," a former Soviet grandmaster, in a succession of five-minute games. Just the other day, the Chess Club software alerted him _ as it is programed to do _ that he is now spending 4.89 percent of his life playing chess on line.

"When you're supposed to be working on a report that's already a week late, and you've run out of excuses, it's another thing you can do," Rotenberg joked. "But if you keep this kind of thing up, it could be pretty scary."

Surfing the Internet, it seems, can make the desktop computer anything but an employee productivity tool. Which is why some companies _ even some of the most technology-savvy _ have started to limit employees' Internet time and access.

Network administrators at Lockheed Martin Technical Aircraft Systems in Fort Worth, for example, recently discovered that several employees with Internet privileges had been making visits to sports sites on the World Wide Web, along with other, seamier destinations that the officials declined to discuss. All this was done on Lockheed time, using company Internet accounts.

"We looked at some data two or three weeks ago that showed there was significant abuse going on," said a Lockheed network technician, Frank Williams.

Williams said the company took disciplinary action against the workers and began monitoring all employee Internet activity.

Lockheed is by no means the only place where managers are concerned that frivolous Net surfing could waste time, run up access fees or clog internal computers.

Pepsi-Cola North America, based in Somers, N.Y., saw the potential for abuse when it began connecting employees to the Net this year.

It quickly rewrote its policy on employee use of company equipment to include Internet use. Superfluous surfing "may be cause for disciplinary action and/or termination," warned a document distributed to all employees.

"You can burn a lot of time on the Internet," said Jerry Gregoire, Pepsi's vice president of information systems. "We wanted to make sure people knew what our expectations were."

So far, no Pepsi people have stepped out of line, Gregoire said, though he expects it is only a matter of time before somebody gets an itchy mouse finger.

A similar set of concerns surfaced a few years ago, when electronic mail became a common corporate fixture. But the Internet's allure is much greater, particularly the World Wide Web.

The Web, perhaps the largest source of research data in the world, is also an increasingly popular form of entertainment, including magazine-style sites about popular television shows, live debate over events like the Simpson trial, 24-hour news feeds and continuously updated sports scores.

Using E-mail for personal purposes is like using the company phone to call your mother; cruising Web sites is more like watching television.

Aside from the vexing issue of wasted time, employers worry that workers will use the corporate Internet account to visit sexually explicit Web sites, leaving companies open to harassment charges from workers who may not appreciate what appears on an office mate's screen.

Such fears have led some companies to use software from developers like Surf Watch of Los Altos, Calif., and Webster Network Strategies of Naples, Fla., whose programs enable businesses _ or parents, for that matter _ to screen the sites a particular user can or cannot view.

(Similar technology was developed in the 1980s to block access to so-called dial-a-porn and other pay-to-listen phone numbers.)

Lockheed now uses Webster's Webtrack program to restrict access to Internet sources that could "create a legal liability" for the company _ including not only sexually explicit material, but also gambling sites and areas that transmit hate mail, Williams said.

Sites deemed to be a problem can be programed into Webtrack, which then blocks access. But Williams said he could not keep up with the proliferation of new sites, nor can he necessarily tell from an Internet address whether a particular site is business-related or not.

Concern that employees are using the Net for activities other than their jobs has led some companies to monitor what their employees are doing on the Net, much as they would review phone records for unauthorized calls.

Companies that supply software that can secretly monitor and record Internet use, like Solid Oak Software of Santa Barbara, Calif., say they have seen a surge in demand from businesses whose identities are a closely held secret.

Though monitoring workers is hardly new, the practice of monitoring Internet use, if it catches hold, is sure to fan the debate over employees' rights to privacy.

Eavesdropping on employee telephone conversations has been common practice in some industries for many years, particularly in customer service jobs. Office computer networks make it possible for managers to peer at employees' PC screens without leaving their desks.