Half of the Fortune 500 companies have dealt with at least one incident related to computer porn in the workplace over the past 12 months, according to a survey released Tuesday.

Corporations are taking the problem very seriously, with offenders being fired in 44 per cent of the cases or being disciplined in a further 41 per cent of the instances.

The survey was conducted last month by Atlanta-based market research company Delta Consulting on behalf of Irish image monitoring software vendor PixAlert International. Researchers polled 50 executives from 50 of the Fortune 500 in industries, including manufacturing, retail, health care, banking/financial services and telecoms. The individuals polled ranged from senior vice presidents to managers.

Determining who at a company was responsible for corporate computer usage policy was challenging, according to Alain Recaborde, principal of Delta Consulting. Delta researchers spent over 250 hours of phone calls tracking down the correct person who might be located in departments as diverse as human resources, legal affairs, IT or finance, he said.

Seventy-four per cent of those polled were fully aware of the legal ramifications of computer porn in the workplace, that such images can form the basis for employee claims of sexual harassment and a hostile work environment. However, only 54 per cent of executives would describe themselves as being totally cognizant that the first point of call for attorneys looking for evidence in such cases is a company’s computer records in terms of Internet usage, e-mail traffic and images on hard drives.

“At the root of the issue, companies are liable, it’s their equipment and their employees,” Recaborde said. “Not all of them realize that.”

Recaborde split the corporations polled into three groups. Twenty-five per cent, particularly at the senior executive level, were very sensitive to the topic of computer porn at work and the legal issues surrounding it. But on the flip side, he described another 25 per cent who didn’t seem to be aware of the issue or concerned about it.

“Then, there’s 50 per cent in the middle who could go either way,” Recaborde said. “If something hit in the news, they’d have to take steps.” Very few corporations are being proactive about illicit images in the workplace, they’re busy dealing with other priorities, he explained.

“When we first start to talk to people about the issue, there’s almost a sense of denial,” said Jack Mangan, vice president of business development at PixAlert, based in Westford, Massachusetts. “Then, over the course of the conversation, people loosen up and then the stories come out about senior executives and senior sales people.”

He mentioned two instances he heard of in the U.S., one where a secretary was told to access a document on an executive’s laptop and was “horrified by what she saw,” and the other involving a doctor in a hospital who was downloading objectionable images onto a computer.

PixAlert’s Mangan said that concerns over sexual harassment had abated since 2000. Dealing with computer porn in the workplace is set to become an issue again in relation to Sarbanes-Oxley Act [CQ], he claimed, as internal and external auditors check that companies are indeed in compliance with their stated computer usage policies.

All the companies surveyed by Delta had a formal computer usage policy in place, with 74 per cent of them saying that their policy goes beyond Internet and e-mail use. Ninety percent of those polled have instituted procedures to handle the discovery of inappropriate computer images. Most firms (80 per cent) said they have technology in place to manage content on their computers. There was a vast array of different software cited with no clear market leader and only 43 per cent of the executives questioned said their software operated at both the network gateway and desktop levels. Employee education is another area to exploit to try and deal with the problem, according to Delta’s Recaborde.

Companies believe that future threats involving harmful images will continue to come from the Internet, e-mail attachments and embedded and zipped files. They also see Wi-Fi networks, networks not under company control, and cell phone cameras as strong future conduits for computer porn together with memory sticks, encrypted files and CDs. Company policies on employees bringing their own devices into work are evolving. Mangan points to one very large U.S. corporation he declined to name where employees’ devices such as digital cameras are considered company property as soon as they’re in the company’s offices, both because of the potential computer porn issue and for general corporation security.

Based in Dublin, PixAlert also has offices in London and Westford, Massachusetts. The company launched its PixAlert Enterprise software in the U.S. at the RSA conference in San Francisco in February. To date, worldwide, the company has sold 125,000 software licenses, according to Mangan.

The May 2005 U.S. survey findings were similar to those from research conducted at PixAlert’s request by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development in the U.K. in October and November of last year, according to Mangan. That survey polled 200 senior executives in the public and private sector. Over 70 per cent of those polled had experience of employees having computer porn on their machines over the previous two years, while over half of the managers were unaware of their own legal liability in relation to such images being in the workplace.



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