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Should you be 'Big Brother' at work?

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The nation's voyeurism addiction got another hit last week when "Big Brother" debuted on CBS, the same network that brought us the rat-eating castaways from "Survivor".

In case you've been stuck on a desert island recently, "Big Brother" puts 10 people in a house and watches their every move, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. There are 28 cameras and 60 microphones, all recording. In fact, some of the cameras are streaming live video right now for your viewing pleasure. The 10 residents, of course, are doing this for cash - the audience gets to vote out one member of the household per week, with the "survivor" winning $500,000.

At home, on the Internet, in the workplace - it should now be quite obvious that nobody should expect privacy.

Forum: Should you be "Big Brother" at work? What do you think? Join an online discussion.

Unintentionally on our part (we plan our reviews long in advance), Network World this week has a roundup of products (see Peeping Tools, Network World, 07/10/00) that let network administrators play the role of "Big Brother" at their company - these products monitor employees' surfing, e-mailing and game-playing habits.

I understand the need for such programs - it helps companies from being sued in sexual harassment and other cases (you would want to know if someone is e-mailing hate-filled manifestos on your network). But I have a problem with the idea of a company's management not having enough faith in their employees that they feel the need to begin such monitoring.

Can this issue be handled via training when an employee is hired? Can you say to your employees, "Look, the Internet is a powerful medium, we use it for our research, so please don't use it to look for dirty pictures," and leave it at that? Do you risk losing valuable employees (in an already tight job market, remember), by telling them that their Web surfing will be monitored and limited by what someone else deems appropriate?

Furthermore, do you get wrapped up in the trap of having to pore through the data to see where people have gone? Several of the products we looked at let you drill deep down into the behaviors of your employees. Several offer statistical charts and graphs that show the company's favorite Web sites, length of time visiting, etc. Some of it seems harmless and fun ("Hey! Accounting likes to go to!"), but this data in the wrong hands can create more headaches than intended.

For example, do you want to be the network administrator who finds out about the employee visiting a family planning Web site? How about someone who visited an AIDS Web site? Finding out that Joe in sales visited the Alcoholics Anonymous Web site ( during his lunch break is one thing, but then what do you do? What do you do if you see Joe in the hallway?

I'm not sure that the IT group is ready for such responsibility, or would even wants it. What are your biggest concerns? Keeping the network running, keeping the data secure or finding out that MaryAnn from Marketing is shopping for Pokemon cards on eBay?

Is there a compromise? Can you use these products to meet the requirements of the law (preventing sexual harassment, etc.) while still maintaining your distance from your employees' lives? Or will you fall into a trap where you start poring over the data and become a voyeur yourself, looking at the behavior of everyone in Sector 7G, making sure everyone is doing the work that they're supposed to be doing?

For once, I don't have all the answers. Let me know what you think. Should IT get involved in monitoring employees' behavior? Let me know at


Contact Reviews Editor Keith Shaw

Forum: Should you be "Big Brother" at work? What do you think? Join an online discussion.

Watching your workers
Two IT managers describe how their companies use Internet monitoring and game-detection software.
Network World, 06/19/00.

Survey says workers unworried about e-mail privacy
IDG News Service, 06/09/00.

The latest headache for network professionals: sites that pay you to surf
Network World, 03/06/00.

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