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 user 2005-02-15 at 9:54:00 am Views: 40
  • #10270
    Big Brother: It’s not government, but corporate
    America doing the spying

    SEATTLE — George Orwell had it wrong.

    It’s not government that is emerging as the clearest
    embodiment of Big Brother — the all-seeing, all-knowing entity in Orwell’s novel
    “1984″ — but Corporate America.

    With technology either already available or on its way,
    corporations can block your e-mail from particular senders. They can stop you
    from printing documents deemed too sensitive. And they can record and review the
    instant-messaging conversations that workers have with other co-workers.

    “People worry a lot about the FBI spying on them,” said
    Lewis Maltby, president of National Workrights Institute. “But your chances of
    being spied on by the FBI are one in a million. Your chances of being spied on
    by your boss are better than 50-50.”

    Spying? Microsoft, America Online and others who are
    developing the technology say hardly.

    Rather, they say, companies have the right to monitor how
    their computers and networks are used. Companies need more control to beef up
    computer security, limit cyberattacks and block loads of junk e-mail, they said.
    Also, some industries, such as financial services and health care, face federal
    requirements to record communications.

    Others worry about the effect of so much corporate control
    on employees’ privacy. With few — and outdated — laws in place, they say,
    employers’ ability to monitor instant-messages and Internet-based calls is
    creeping uncomfortably close to policing basic conversation.

    “There’s just a train wreck that’s coming,” said Ted
    Schadler, an analyst with technology research firm Forrester Research.

    Network administrators’ need for greater control for
    regulatory compliance and security must be balanced against the public policy
    concerns of privacy, Schadler said. “It’s going to take a few painful lawsuits.”

    Microsoft, AOL and Yahoo have developed or are preparing to
    roll out corporate versions of their popular instant-message services. All have
    the ability to archive instant-messages that employees send. Other features
    vary. Some allow the network administrators to determine who may message whom in
    the company directory, blocking off, for instance, access to the chief executive
    by rank-and-file employees.

    MessageGate, a Bellevue spin-off from aerospace
    manufacturer Boeing, offers junk e-mail filtering software. It identifies, flags
    and seizes e-mails that contain suspect phrases for review by a designated
    compliance officer. It will soon do the same for instant messages.

    Microsoft is developing its Windows Rights Management
    technologies, which can restrict whether employees can view, print or forward
    e-mails and files. The technology is designed to help companies keep their
    intellectual property from leaking to competitors or the public, Microsoft said.

    Critics contend it is yet another way businesses are
    emerging as Big Brother and wielding more control over employees.

    There are few laws that protect employees’ privacy rights
    in the workplace, the National Workrights Institute’s Maltby said.

    “It’s the Wild West,” he said. “Employers can do whatever
    they want.”

    With most of these products slated to be released later
    this year, it’s unclear how and how many companies will use the technology. But
    in recent years, companies including The New York Times, Dow Chemical,
    Xerox and others have fired employees for Internet use deemed inappropriate.

    A 1986 federal law says employers cannot deliberately
    listen to personal telephone calls that someone might make at work. Some states
    have passed laws requiring employers to notify employees that their e-mail may
    be monitored. But there’s little else, critics say.

    That means it’s up to employers to decide how far is too

    “It’s a completely legitimate concern,” said David Weld,
    chief executive of MessageGate, the message-filtering company.

    So are the corporate fears of hacker attacks and government
    demands for recording communications, he said.

    Without corporate instant-message applications that allow
    for greater control and security, some companies consider completely shutting
    off access to any IM programs, said Ed Simnett, lead product manager for
    Microsoft’s Live Communictions Server, which hosts the instant-messaging
    capabilities from workers’ desktop computers.

    “Employers need to manage IM use, just as they do e-mail
    use,” said Nancy Flynn, executive director of The ePolicy Institute and author
    of E-Mail Rules.

    “It’s not a matter of Big Brother reading over employees’
    electronic shoulders,” she wrote in an e-mail seeking comment. “Rules, policies
    and monitoring tools are designed to protect the company’s assets (human and
    financial), future and reputation.”

    But the casual, conversation-like quality of
    instant-messaging makes monitoring an even bigger threat to employees’ privacy,
    said Lee Tien, a staff attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation

    “You really are just chatting,” he said, which can prove to
    be “a bigger minefield for the person who’s being surveilled.”

    Much of the concern comes down to the reality that network
    administrators “are people like everybody else,” Maltby said. “We all know we’re
    not supposed to read other people’s letters but how many people would yield to
    the notion of not reading other people’s e-mail.”

    Ultimately, it may be a matter of maturing in how they use
    instant-message applications just as they have in e-mailing, said Joe Wilcox,
    senior analyst with New York-based Jupiter Research. “When we move into an era
    of IM being logged, you need to develop new IM habits.”

    The debate may soon revolve around real conversation. Tech
    companies are trying to improve the quality of making voice calls over the
    Internet. That could offer major cost savings for businesses on their phone
    bills, said Richard Doherty, director of the research firm Envisioneering Group
    in Seaford, N.Y.

    It also promises another area of potential conflict with
    privacy concerns.

    Such calls aren’t exactly telephone calls and so might not
    receive the protections employees have when using telephone networks, Doherty
    said. The laws “were written for an era that was telegraph and telephone,” he
    said. “Now we’re in an era of telephone and computer and believe me, the laws
    are not written for a computer.”