How's this for a nightmare? You are passed over for a promotion. You go ballistic and start typing an e-mail to a co-worker, ranting about your boss and how you're thinking about suing the company for discrimination. Then your rational side kicks in. You realize that maybe you weren't the best candidate and delete the message. End of story? Not quite. It turns out that every character you typed, errors and all, has been stored for the boss to see. You get a call from the corner office. Mr. Bullmoose would like to see you.
Something right out of an updated Orwell, circa 2084. Except there's no need to wait that long: it's going on today. In offices around the U.S., managers are installing software that monitors their employees' computer activity, both online and off-line--every message sent, every website visited, every file formatted and, perhaps most Orwellian of all, every key stroked, even if the employee never stored the data. And you may never know it's all happening.
About 17% of FORTUNE 1,000 companies, along with half a dozen federal agencies, now have so-called monitoring software, according to International Data Corp., a research firm in Framingham, Mass. The figure is expected to jump to 80% by 2001. And about 12% of companies in an American Management Association survey said they do not notify their employees of their monitoring activities.
Increasingly, corporations are using sanctions against violators of their rules on computer use. Twenty-eight percent of companies in the A.M.A. survey said they have dismissed employees for misuse or personal use of telecommunications equipment. Last year Xerox fired 40 employees for what it deemed inappropriate use of the Internet, and the New York Times axed 23 workers for sending what were considered to be obscene e-mails on company computers. "We are on the verge of creating a surveillance society in the workplace," says American Civil Liberties Union associate director Barry Steinhardt. Monitoring advocates reply that the threat of intellectual-property theft, lawsuits and just plain goofing off by employees warrants a little--or a lot of--spying.
At the moment, monitoring for most companies means tracking e-mail and Net use. Elron Software of Burlington, Mass., makes Message Inspector, a program that sniffs out inappropriate terms--as defined by whoever owns it--from incoming and outgoing e-mails. When it finds one, the program obliterates the e-mail or records it in a company database. San Diego firm Websense offers Websense Enterprise, a Trekkie name for a program that blocks access to inappropriate Web pages and logs every minute employees spend on each site.
The surreptitious off-line capabilities of snooping programs are creating a booming industry. Off-line surveillance means someone spying on anything you do while not connected to the Net. That includes simple word processing like constructing drafts or writing in a diary. The most far-reaching programs keep a log of every letter you type and delete. "Scanning for key words and websites is not rocket science," says Jonathan Penn, analyst at Giga Information Group, an e-business advisory firm in Cambridge, Mass. "We're talking about something that's soon going to approach a billion-dollar market."