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Monitoring court case looms

Judges in the 9th Circuit court could force the issue of employee monitoring. 01/08/09 ReleVents hed: dek: By James Mathewson

A while back, I wrote a newsletter column in which I asked network administrators on our list what their employee Internet monitoring policies were and how they dealt with them. The upshot is, most of the more than 100 respondents had no problem with monitoring employee e-mail and Web usage. Most of them thought that it was appropriate for employers to force employees to keep their personal matters on their home computers.

The minority of respondents–mostly end users–had serious problems with being monitored. They viewed their computers as an extension of their private work areas and they thought their privacy rights were being seriously violated by the monitoring. While they knew the occasional e-mail from a friend or family member would not get them in trouble (most companies just monitor for porn), it bothered them that personal files could be accessed at any time.

This is essentially the reaction from a group of judges in the 9th Circuit, who staged a protest against the monitoring of their own systems earlier this year, ordering staff to disable monitoring software. The week long protest affected 10,000 court workers in nine western states. According to Chief Judge Mary M. Schroeder, “We are concerned about the propriety and even the legality of monitoring Internet usage.” The judges intend to take their case to the Judicial Conference of the United States, the courts’ policy-making group of 27 judges, which is expected to take up the subject at its next meeting Sept. 11.

This action highlights the growing debate about monitoring. Proponents claim that, without monitoring and filtering software, servers will become quickly inundated with spam mail and users will put companies at risk of hostile workplace rules with Web porn access. But critics charge that it violates privacy and, as such, is illegal.

My own view is that there has to be a solution that enables spam and porn filtering without violating the privacy rights of individual users. The problem is more with current software, such as SurfControl, which is too coarse-grained and draconian in nature. The company’s own marketing literature vilifies employees who hog bandwidth with personal e-mail. The fact is, a few jokes between employees and their friends and family are a drop in the bucket compared with the quantity of spam that overflows from e-mail servers. And filtering and monitoring software also must allow for better administration, blocking categories of sites rather than either one site at a time or all sites with the word breast in them. Until the two poles of this debate come to the middle and find a legal solution that solves the problems, we will probably need to enforce privacy laws to the limit and deal with all the IT headaches that come with this.

James Mathewson is editor of ComputerUser magazine and

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