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Employee monitoring: When IT is asked to spy

With staff surveillance on the rise, high-tech types can be put in the awkward position of having to squeal on their fellow workers.

By Tam Harbert
June 16, 2010 06:00 AM ET

Computerworld - It's 9:00 in the morning, or 3:00 in the afternoon, or even 10:00 at night. Do you know what your users are up to?

More than ever, IT managers can answer "Oh, yes" to that query.

spying eye

As corporate functions, including voice and video, converge onto IP-based networks, more corporate infractions are happening online. Employees leak intellectual property or trade secrets, either on purpose or inadvertently; violate laws against sexual harassment or child pornography; and waste time while looking like they are hard at work.

In response -- spurred in part by stricter regulatory, legal and compliance requirements -- organizations are not only filtering and blocking Web sites and scanning e-mail. Many are also watching what employees post on social networks and blogs, even if it's done from home using noncompany equipment.

They are collecting and retaining mobile phone calls and text messages. They can even track employees' physical locations using the GPS feature on smartphones.

More often that not, IT workers are the ones being asked to do the digital dirty work, primarily because they're the people with the technical know-how to get the job done, says Nancy Flynn, executive director of the ePolicy Institute.

Statistics are hard to come by, but Flynn and other industry observers agree that monitoring and surveillance are becoming a bigger part of IT's job.

Michael Workman, an associate professor at the Florida Institute of Technology's Nathan M. Bisk College of Business who studies IT security and behavior at corporations, estimates that monitoring responsibilities take up at least 20% of the average IT manager's time.

Yet most IT professionals never expected they'd be asked to police their colleagues and co-workers in quite this way. How do they feel about this growing responsibility?

Workman says he sees a split among tech workers. Those who specialize in security issues feel that it's a valid part of IT's job. But those who have more of a generalist's role, such as network administrators, often don't like it.

Computerworld went looking for IT managers who would share their experiences and attitudes, and found a wide variety of viewpoints, ranging from discomfort at having to "babysit" employees to righteous beliefs about "protecting the integrity of the system." Read on for their stories.



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