Watch your on-line chit-chat, the boss is reading it

Big Brother may not be watching, but your employer most likely is.

Every electronic piece of correspondence such as an email or instant message written and sent from work is something your company has every right to retrieve and read. In fact, businesses are increasingly doing just that, finding they just might need to sift through such correspondence and are obliged to keep these electronic records for many years.

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What most employees probably don’t know is that the e-mails – both personal and otherwise – sent through business accounts is, in fact, corporate property. It means that those cartoon jokes and office gossip exchanges with co-workers and friends can come back to haunt you. Nothing is sacred or personal when it comes to using the IT resources of your workplace.

“You can’t expect privacy when you use corporate e-mail accounts,” says Paul Chen, the CEO of Fortiva Inc., a Toronto- based provider of e-mail archiving products. “An employee has no reason to expect privacy when using business tools. We consistently hear comments from customers that they are amazed by the sorts of things that people write in emails.”

It includes all manner of inter-office jabber that routinely goes on, including highly charged personal exchanges between colleagues – things that a spouse or significant other would not appreciate. Even worse, according to Mr. Chen, some employers have turned up employee credit card information and even bankcard passwords in old e-mails. People talk about privacy issues in terms of banks keeping the data they collect from customer safe, but don’t seem reluctant to send their personal information through email, Mr. Chen notes.

Canadian businesses today are increasingly obliged to e-mail archive for many reasons, not the least of which is because they need to maintain and manage electronic correspondence in order to be protected from litigation, or because they need to adhere to government regulations.

E-mail archiving is a process of storing every email sent or received by an e-mail server in some repository for varying lengths of time. Different retention rules may apply to various sets and types of communication. For example, electronic correspondence by all employees might be saved up to a year or more. Communications between CIO and CTO or other senior executives could be kept up to seven years or longer.

“You have to be able to prove that an email hasn’t been modified or changed since the time of communication,” Mr. Chen says, explaining the need to keep old e-mails. “What we’re finding is those companies that are in a more regulated industry and receiving and sending a lot of emails are already adopting this type of technology.”

The early adopters are in financial services – banks, brokerages and mutual-fund companies. Manufacturers and pharmaceutical companies and utilities are likewise coming on board with the concept. It’s typically companies that tend to be involved in litigation that are adopting the technology earlier.

Companies like Fortiva provide e-mail archiving capability as a remote service. In addition, they also give companies search tools that make it possible to sift through thousands or millions of e-mails in order to find a specific one – literally within minutes.

Some companies aren’t merely looking to more closely scrutinizing the use of corporate electronic messaging resources by employees. There appears growing cynicism on the part of employers that employees aren’t being as productive as they could or should be. The movement is definitely taking seed in the United States with, among others, a Florida-based company called Spectorsoft Corp. trumpeting that personal Web surfing by employees could be costing businesses millions of dollars. Spectorsoft cites research that claims American workers admit to spending, on average, approximately two hours a day doing non-work related things – and that the single largest distraction is personal Internet surfing.

“The problem is much worse than most businesses could possibly imagine,” warns Spectorsoft president C. Douglas Fowler in a press release.

This research cited by Spectorsoft concludes non-work related activities such Web surfing costs U.S. companies more than US$759 billion dollars a year in lost productivity. So to curtail such workplace transgressions, the company provides a means to let employers keep a more watchful eye. Spectorsoft’s software automatically captures and reviews employee emails sent and received, chat conversations and instant messages, files downloaded, Web sites visited, applications launched and even keystrokes typed. It can even create what’s described as the equivalent of digital surveillance by taking screen snapshots so that an employer can see the exact sequence of everything an employee does on a workplace computer.

David Senf, a research analyst with IDC Canada in Toronto, believes there’s generally nothing sinister about employers that keep a more watchful eye on how corporate IT resources are used by employees. After all, he says, a business exists first and foremost to make money and that means controlling costs – including employee productivity – while also growing revenues.

The movement from a paper-based/analogue workplace to one that is digital and much more easily “trackable” certainly tempts some employers to find out what employees are up to, he says.

“The surveillance of employees is often cited as proof of the Orwellian prophecy of Big Brother (who is) watching our every move. But this isn’t the case,” Mr. Senf says. Rather it’s a need to achieve business objectives and “not sinister mind control driving e-mail and Web surfing surveillance.”

And it’s a growing trend. So long as “productivity in Canada continues to lag woefully behind the U.S,” executives here will remain increasingly conscious of positive and negative contributors to worker output, Mr. Senf reasons. “Employees should recognize that email and Web surfing are, most likely, being scrutinized by their employer.”

The bottom line: employers are watching you – or can if they choose.

This article appeared in The Globe and Mail on July 28, 2005.