When IT Is Asked to Spy

IT managers are being put in the awkward position of monitoring fellow employees.

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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.

IT managers interviewed for this story hold a wide variety of views, ranging from discomfort at having to baby-sit their co-workers to righteous convictions about the need to protect the integrity of their companies' systems.

The Reluctant Beat Cop

Monitoring employees has become a bigger part of IT's job at ENE Systems Inc., an energy and building automation company in Canton, Mass. A new state law regarding the security of personal data has increased the importance of monitoring online activity, says Barry Thompson, network services manager at the $30 million company, which has 140 employees.

Previously, Thompson checked the logs from the company's Microsoft ISA (Internet Security and Acceleration) Server, which tracks what Web sites people access, only if a supervisor suspected an employee of violating the company's stated policies.

Now, one of his five IT staffers regularly reviews the logs, even without a specific request. "That's all he does for one day a week," says Thompson. "He goes through the logs to see if there's anything in there that needs to be exposed or discussed." Activity related to porn, gambling or hate speech automatically raises red flags, he says.

Thompson and his staff aren't exactly comfortable with this task. "We're IT guys. We're not baby sitters," he says. "It's a difficult position to be in, but it does come with the territory."

It helps that his IT staff isn't responsible for confronting violators, only finding them. If a problem pops up, the IT staff reports it to Thompson, who then determines whether to report the violation to the employee's supervisor.

He's like the neighborhood beat cop, who might catch kids stealing from the corner store but let them off with a warning the first time. "I do it on a case-by-case basis, based on my own gut feeling about what [the violator is] telling me," he says. "I'm a pretty good judge of whether or not someone's lying."

In the 10 years he's been with the company, Thompson says, he has officially reported inappropriate Internet usage to a supervisor on just two occasions.

The reason for that low number? "We regularly communicate to the rank-and-file employees that all Internet access is monitored and logged, so they know they are being watched," Thompson says. "In my view, that keeps the majority of people honest."

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