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Employers monitoring e-mail, Web surfing

July 10, 2001

NEW YORK · More than a third of the U.S. work force with access to the Internet have their e-mail messages and Web surfing regularly monitored by their employers, according to a study released Monday.

Andrew Schulman, the study's chief researcher, attributes the prevalence of workplace surveillance to its ease and low cost -- an average of $5.25 per monitored employee each year using commercial software packages.

"There are legitimate reasons to be worried about what employees are doing, but those legitimate reasons could also lead you to put cameras everywhere and record every phone conversation," Schulman said. "But those things aren't done for the most part."

The study was conducted by the Workplace Surveillance Project of the Privacy Foundation, a research group based at the University of Denver.

Hundreds of employees have been fired in recent years for using their company Internet systems inappropriately.

Last year, for example, The Dow Chemical Co. fired 50 workers and disciplined another 200 for e-mailing pornography and violent images from company computers. Earlier, Xerox Corp. fired 40 workers for spending work time at porn and shopping sites.

Courts have ruled that employers have some rights to monitor use of their equipment, but Schulman said companies sometimes go too far.

"The argument of, `Well, it's our computer. It's our office' doesn't really work," Schulman said. "The bathrooms belong to them, too."

He said companies need to think through why they monitor, and they should make better efforts at warning employees ahead of time.

The Privacy Foundation study estimates that 14 million employees are under continuous surveillance using commercially available software. According to Nielsen/NetRatings, the total online work force in the United States is about 40 million.

By Anick Jesdanun, The Associated Press, Copyright © 2001, South Florida Sun-Sentinel


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