From that online shopping site you discretely browse at work to the e-mails sent from your private Web-based account, there’s a very good chance your company knows exactly what you’re up to.
A whopping 92 percent of companies surveyed said they monitor their employees’ e-mail and Internet use while at work, according to a new poll from the Center for Business Ethics at Bentley College in Waltham.
A quarter of those employers said they are watching “all the time” and 17 percent indicated they monitored “regularly.” Just 34 percent indicated they do it “only for good reason.”
“It surprised us,” said study co-author Mark Rowe. “We would certainly advocate for a more judicious approach to monitoring, perhaps more selective.”
Even more surprising, Rowe said, was the fact that nearly half the companies surveyed had no written guidelines or policies for monitoring their monitors -the folks who can track electronically everything employees are doing at their computers.
Rapid advances in technology allow employers to install software that tracks each keystroke an employee makes at his or her computer. And for workers who thought they beat the system by using “Instant Message” computer chats instead of e-mail, think again.
“We provide the tools for companies to invoke whatever policy controls a company wants to invoke,” said Frank Cabri of Blue Coat Systems, a California-based company that makes software allowing companies to track their employees’ instant message communications.
A recent Blue Coat survey found more than 65 percent of office workers surveyed used IM for personal conversations at work, and nearly 60 percent did not believe their IM conversations could be monitored.
In the Bentley College survey, Rowe said employers cited good reasons for needing to watch their employees. Companies said they need to guard against theft of proprietary information or trade secrets. They also said they need to protect themselves from legal liabilities if, for instance, a worker is illegally downloading music on a work computer or sexually harassing another via e-mail.
But given the potentially sensitive nature of the information collected about employees – and the possibility of that information being abused or falling into the wrong hands – Rowe said more companies need to pay attention to how they monitor their monitors.
That point was dramatically illustrated in a recent letter to Dear Abby from a security specialist who had “seen it all” while monitoring employees’ e-mails and Internet usage.
“I will never look at certain employees the same way again,” the specialist wrote about the “personal measurements” and “private requirements” employees disclosed while checking out dating Web sites.
Details between couples going through “nasty divorces” as well as “torrid love affairs” also popped up in the monitoring.
“It’s like dumping everyone’s diary from the company on (the monitors’) desk and walking away and not expecting them to look,” said Lewis Maltby, president of the National Workrights Institute.
Maltby said there are few laws regulating electronic surveillance in the workplace. Though polls often show Americans value their privacy, Maltby said that popular sentiment has not translated to a groundswell demanding more legal protections from monitoring in the workplace.
“My advice to employees would be to use e-mail and the Internet as if you are being watched, because you probably are,” Maltby said.
“Just because your employer hasn’t told you they are watching your e-mail,” Maltby added, “doesn’t mean they are not doing it.”