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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Bosses Monitor Staff Behavior on Internet

BALTIMORE -- He's doing it again.

Shane Poole had a hunch one of his employees was busy jabbering away on the Internet when he should have been busy working. A vice president at American Metal Fabricators in Prince Frederick, Maryland, Poole was peeved: Was he paying someone to slack off all day?

To find out, Poole rigged the company computer network with Silent Watch - software that allows employers to see every keystroke workers make, every online journey they take on their PC.


Sitting in his office, it wasn't long before Poole saw the man tapping out "goo goo, gaa gaa comments" to his girlfriend over the net, the words popping up on Poole's computer screen as plain as if he were looking over the man's shoulder. Poole marched in and ordered him back to work. "I don't think he realized how I knew."

Electronic surveillance on the job is nothing new. Security cameras and telephone logs have long been used to discourage employee mischief and ensure snappy customer service. But as computers and the Internet penetrate more workplaces, some managers are finding older technology inadequate.

"Companies will say, 'We have cameras right behind our people, but I can't see what they're doing on their computer,'" said Roy Young of Adavi Inc., the small start-up that makes Silent Watch in Dunkirk, Maryland.

That's why many are turning to snoop software to watch over their wired employees. According to the American Management Association, 45 percent of U.S. companies electronically monitor employees on the job, up from 35 percent in 1997 - a spike due mostly to concern over employee e-mail and computer files.

Businesses have good reason to fret. When workers circulate lewd e-mail jokes or X-rated web sites, it opens them to multimillion-dollar harassment lawsuits. The discovery of an off-color electronic message at the St. Louis investment firm Edward Jones in April forced the company to dismiss 19 employees and to reprimand 41 others.

But companies worry that employees could use the Internet to spill trade secrets or sensitive financial data. And they fret about lost productivity.

"We want to make sure we're getting everything out of employees that we're supposed to be," said Steve Sullivan, vice president of investment technology at T. Rowe Price in Baltimore, which monitors its employees' e-mail and Internet use. The software's Big Brother elements are making some workers and privacy rights activists bristle about its use in the workplace.

"What are they going to do next? Track how many times I go to the bathroom?" grouses Howard Nordby, a 26-year-old engineer at defense contractor Northrop Grumman Corp. in Linthicum, Maryland. Nordby said last fall he was accused of being an "Internet abuser" after he visited a bunch of sports web sites on his lunch hour.

In fact, workers have only a thin veil of privacy protection.

Federal law prohibits employers from listening in on employees' private telephone conversations, but "there's absolutely no protection when it comes to electronic communications on computers," said Jeremy Gruber, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union's Workplace Rights Project

Employers at private-sector companies, Gruber says, can riffle through your e-mail, computer files and web browsing history at will - and in most cases don't even have to let you know they're doing it.

Only Connecticut requires companies to tell workers they're being electronically monitored. California lawmakers are now considering a similar bill.