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Be careful when you decide to spend a little leisure time browsing Facebook, sending personal emails, or watching a few YouTube videos during your workday—big brother could be watching over your shoulder. While such indiscretions used to go undetected by most company managers, this isn’t the case any longer. In fact, even your average-Joe firm has the technology to capture their workers’ computer habits.

In the past, only government agencies or high-profile corporations could afford the technology needed to track their employees. Specifically, they had to hire private investigators to install complicated video-monitoring systems or computer-use tracking devices. But with the advent of new, cheaper technologies, many more businesses are starting to supervise their employees’ every move. The main reason driving the new big brother tactics is that businesses are facing extreme financial pressure. In order to derive every penny from their workers’ salaries, they are attempting to “get leaner and meaner”—making sure work time isn’t spent idling on social networking sites or using company phone time chatting with friends or family.

While increased productivity is one of the main drivers of the increase in monitoring, employers also want to make sure that employees aren’t spilling company trade secrets, sending boss-slamming e-mails to bloggers, sexually harassing other co-workers, or posting discriminatory remarks on personal blogs.

But when does monitoring cross the line? This question has become the focus of public debate in recent months in light of recent events. USA Today recently reported:

•Next month, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in a case examining the allowable scope of monitoring workers’ use of a company-provided pager.

Ontario, Calif., police officer Jeff Quon sent personal, and sometimes sexually explicit, text messages to his wife and a co-worker using an employer-provided pager. His office had a written company policy stating it retained the right to monitor work activities such as e-mail and Internet use but didn’t specify text messages. Quon says his rights were violated because the department had an informal practice of not reviewing messages when the employee paid for overage charges, which he had done.

Among the issues the Supreme Court will examine: "Does the employee have an expectation of privacy when using an employer-issued handheld device to transmit personal messages? … And whether his wife, who was not an employee, had a privacy expectation," says Wendy Lane, an attorney at Rutter Hobbs & Davidoff.

The decision in this case could be a "game changer" if Quon prevails, says Nancy Flynn, founder of training and consulting firm ePolicy Institute. "This could have implications for all (employer-supplied) electronic devices."

•The National Transportation Safety Board last month suggested using the "black box" cockpit recorders to routinely monitor pilots’ conversations to make sure they are focused on work. The NTSB says this type of monitoring is a safety "essential" to make sure pilots are focused on flying — but pilots’ unions say the practice would be intrusive.

•Japanese cellphone maker KDDI this month announced the creation of motion-sensing technology that can monitor even the smallest movements by employees, such as walking, climbing stairs and cleaning, according to a BBC report. If strapped to a cleaning worker’s waist, a device with this technology can track actions such as scrubbing, sweeping and emptying garbage cans — and report the results back to managers.


  1. My guess is that most bosses don't really want to know. So it's a thing to be careful about on both sides.

  2. Gravatar for John

    Clearly monitoring software, whilst cheap, also creates an overhead that businesses should take into account. Furthermore, monitoring is reactive, whilst blocking also eliminates some productivity-related advantages of social networking (studies show that social networking boosts productivity in small doses throughout the day).

    An interesting option is iFreeFace (, a new application that limits time on distracting sites without blocking or monitoring. It can also be used to block specific sites and email at any time for employees to focus on a specific task. It's also fully controllable by either the employee or the IT administrator, making it a flexible alternative to monitoring software. It does not allow anyone other than the immediate user to see his or her sites visited, and even then, only tracks those sites and apps on the user's custom list.

    This kind of software is proactive compared to monitoring, more productivity-boosting than blocking, and of course, insulates companies from potential lawsuits relating to private internet use in the workplace.

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