Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Companies Use Software to Combat Internet Abuse

Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Companies Use Software to Combat Internet Abuse

Article excerpt

Dan Escamilla's administrative assistant had a problem. An Internet problem.

After repeated written and verbal warnings -- and a promise to give up her online chatting on company time -- the woman couldn't break her habit.

So, Escamilla, chief executive officer of the Huntington Beach, Calif.-based Legal Service Bureau, surreptitiously installed surveillance software on some company computers.

He caught his assistant red-handed. Presented with printouts of her computer screen, she broke down in tears, stumbled over some office furniture and ran out of the building. He hasn't heard from her since.

"While [employees] are on the company clock, we consider it theft of payroll funds. It's kind of a severe way to put it, but that's exactly what it is," Escamilla said.

A growing number of employers are using surveillance software to crack down on personal Internet use at the office. Most cite productivity issues, although many say they want to avoid legal liabilities that could stem from offensive e-mails. Still others say they want to prevent leaks of confidential business information.

An American Management Association survey this year found that 38 percent of the major U.S. companies polled check their employees' e-mail and 54 percent monitor Internet connections.

Of the 2,100 firms responding to the survey, 17 percent have fired employees for misusing the Internet. Twenty-six percent have given workers formal reprimands and 20 percent have issued informal warnings.

The definition of misuse may vary with each company, said Eric Rolfe Greenberg, the AMA's director of management studies. The numbers are high, he said, because cruising the Internet is still a big deal.

"We tend to forget how new it is," Greenberg said. "As time goes by, the novelty will wear off."

Internet abusers have an illusion of privacy, Greenberg said. Because there's no one standing over their shoulder, employees "tend to forget or ignore or not assume that anything connected to a central server can probably be stored and reviewed."

Nearly 2,000 companies nationwide -- including Escamilla's -- use a monitoring system made by SpectorSoft that captures a picture of an employee's computer screen every one to 30 seconds.

Employers can review the pictures at the monitored computers -- or have the images sent to an e-mail account for later review. Similar programs are made by London-based Omniquad Desktop Surveillance and SoftEyes of West Des Moines, Iowa.

"It's kind of like a VCR pointed at your computer monitor," explained Doug Fowler, SpectorSoft's president. "If [employees] know they're being recorded, they're not going to spend a lot of time goofing off on the Internet."

Interestingly, about half of Vero Beach, Fla.-based SpectorSoft's customers use the software to try to determine whether a spouse is being unfaithful, Fowler said, though that "wasn't part of our business plan."

Employers also use server-based filtering programs to prevent access to certain categories of Web sites such as pornography or e-commerce.

Major players in this market include Websense Inc. of San Diego, whose software can be programmed to allow workers to enter certain sites only during a lunch break or after hours. Websense software can also generate reports and charts on individual users' surfing history. …

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