Ontario implements Internet monitoring for civil servants

Ontario’s civil servants best behave themselves while on-line or Big Brother will pay them a visit.

The Ontario Government joins the provincial governments of Manitoba and British Columbia as those taking steps to ensure the use of taxpayers’ IT resources aren’t squandered. Ontario has implemented a policy that will identify employees who may be using e-mail or Internet privileges inappropriately. Ontario issued notices to its employees that if abuse of IT resources is suspected their Internet use could be monitored.

The policy was implemented in July, and the Ontario Progressive Conservative government made clear no random or widespread spying on individual employees will take place.

The government stated its policy on IT resources is now consistent with its employee guidelines for other assets such as telephones, vehicles and photocopiers. That being, employees can use the aforementioned equipment for work-related activities only.

Joan McCalla, Ontario’s corporate chief strategist, described the policy as a proactive measure.

“It’s responsible management,” McCalla explained. “As people are increasingly using the Internet in the workplace – and we encourage them to do so – it’s important our employees are aware of our policies.

“Like all government resources, [technology] should be used for work-related activities.”

For employee monitoring to commence, a senior manager from the affected department has to grant approval. Incidentally, management also has the right to veto any monitoring request.

learning from others

McCalla said Ontario consulted with Manitoba and British Columbia before implementing their Internet monitoring policy. “There are a number of issues to consider when entering the Internet world,” she remarked. “We researched as much as we could to see how other organizations have done it and why they’ve done it. We wanted to learn from those who’ve gone before us.”

She added she’s received no feedback – good, bad or indifferent – from any government staff to date.

According to a Nielsen/NetRatings survey published in February, many company employees take advantage of work-based Internet connections because they tend to be faster than the ones at home. The study found Internet users spend about 21 hours per month on-line at work surfing recreationally, more than double the amount of time spent in cyberspace while at home.

John Boufford, ISP, is the president of e-Privacy Management Systems, a Lakefield, Ont.-based consulting practice specializing in privacy reviews of IT projects and business policies. Boufford considers Ontario’s policy to be best-of-breed.

“This is one of the best Internet acceptable-use policies that I have seen. It addresses most of the privacy concerns that a privacy advocate might have,” Boufford said. “Philosophically, most privacy experts have a great deal of concern with surveillance technologies. However, most of us recognize that there are situations where limited surveillance is justifiable.”

In Manitoba, civil servants are subjected to on-line monitoring only when there is just cause for action. “All users (of the provincial government’s electronic resources) are responsible to use those resources in an ethical and lawful manner,” said David Primmer, acting chief information officer for the province of Manitoba in Winnipeg. “We don’t monitor usage in general…it has to be determined there’s a problem based on performance issues or a complaint from within the staff.”

politicians excepted

For the employee on the receiving end of these policies, there may be the question of fair play. For instance, none of the Ontario government’s Members of Provincial Parliament are subject to the same scrutiny.

Meanwhile, Ontario is also currently working on implementing Web filtering software to further ensure taxpayers’ resources are not wasted. MPPs will not be subjected to this segment of responsible management either.

The Ontario Public Service Employees’ Union (OPSEU) – which represents the government’s 50,000 employees – is in consultation with the government over its concerns regarding targeted monitoring.

“Our main concern is to ensure that they’re not targeting anyone,” said Don Ford, a Toronto-based communications officer for OPSEU. “The other problem is selective enforcement…the union has objected to this policy in principal.”

But Boufford said Ontario’s policy is intended to allow targeted monitoring of identified individuals only under certain circumstances. “It appears nothing prevents management from target monitoring certain individuals when there is a reasonable belief that those individuals are engaged in inappropriate use of the technology.”

Ford also called into question the blanketing effect of the policy. He cited OPSEU members who work as psychologists or researchers at the Clark Institute in Toronto who specialize in studying sexual deviancy and/or the human body.

“Any word these people punch into a search engine will immediately bring up any number of porn sites,” he said.

But McCalla said no member of the provincial staff would be monitored without probable cause. “The program will be applied where it’s warranted,” she said. “On the basis of certain areas of provincial programs, certain staff can be exempted.”

Like MPPs. “This policy applies to public servants only and it would apply to staff in a Minister’s office but not an MPP,” McCalla confirmed.

The whole issue raises fears of privacy infringement and where organizations – public or private – should draw the line on employee monitoring. Boufford admitted there’s a fine line running between proactive resource management and the interests of privacy.

“Surveillance intended to monitor employee keystrokes with a view to monitoring productivity is offensive and erodes employee trust and productivity. The result is a vicious cycle that causes the best employees to leave and find a job that is more rewarding,” he said. “Individuals ought to be free from surveillance as much as possible. However, employers have legitimate concerns …including industrial espionage and possible inappropriate and illegal behaviour on the part of a small number of individuals.”

According to the American Management Association, at least 45 per cent of surveyed employers said they monitored their employees’ phone calls, computer files or e-mail messages. That number, based on a survey of more than 1,000 human-resources managers at corporations of varying sizes, is up from 35 per cent two years ago.

Come January 2001, federally-regulated agencies in Canada will come under the control of the Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act (formerly Bill C-6), and all surveillance in organizations is subject to the new legislation. Boufford added in three to four years he expects the provinces to usher in similar privacy legislation.

“It looks as though this government policy is in-line with the private sector’s policies,” said Jordan Worth, an analyst with IDC Canada in Toronto. “The Internet at the office is just like any other piece of office equipment. It belongs to the company and it’s their right to ensure it is used properly.”