Employee monitoring software returns us to 1984
The announcement observes that employees "should not waste company time and money
at unproductive Internet sites ... the Net also has destinations many bosses might frown
on, such as the Dilbert cartoon site or Playboy magazine's cyberspace counterpart."
The Internet offers a million ways to waste time. It also has job announcements, special
interest information or propaganda, depending on one's viewpoint and myriad destinations
that might imply a lack of loyalty on the part of employees who visited them.
It won't be long before every manager can get daily tattle sheets on where staff members
have been cybersurfing.
"The software ... can identify who uses the Internet, where they go and how long they
stay; identify who is downloading material unrelated to work and finger people playing
network games or using chat rooms," the product literature states. In my opinion,
this is not just simple micromanagement; this is full blown snoopervision.
For a few extra dollars management can buy "a list of blocked sites in categories
like pornography and game-playing." Don't get me wrong; this sort of Web-surfing has
no place on the job. But blocking Dilbert is cruel and inhuman. Next we'll have to leave
our newspapers and paperback books with the guard at the front door.
Employees have no monopoly on frivolous game-playing. If managers can create their own
lists of banned sites, they could also prevent employees from visiting rival agencies.
Supervisors at the Park Service can block access to the Forest Service, and vice versa.
Bosses in the FBI can thwart visits to the Drug Enforcement Administration and the CIA.
Army officers can prevent browsing of Navy sites. Directors can keep their staffs under
control, eliminating rampant horizontal communication that, in their view, undermines the
authority of the organization's management superstructure.
It appears that LittleBrother can be made into a major threat to employee privacy and
inhibitor of freedom of inquiry and expression.
Still, the product announcement claimed that it was not all Orwellian gloom and doom.
"But LittleBrother isn't a total drag on the fun-loving corporate Web-head. The
software can be configured to allow full Web access before work hours, during lunch and
after work." Perhaps we will be permitted to visit with our counterparts in other
agencies during our off hours.
The General Services Administration's IRM regulations limited agencies' control of
telephone use. Except for criminal investigations, agencies had to ask permission of the
GSA administrator before they could tap employees' telephone conversations. Even for
criminal investigations, agencies typically had to get a court order.
But no similar rules limit management oversight of electronic communications.
Government-owned computers are for official use only. As more and more employees turn to
e-mail for routine communications, we need to recognize that the technology can analyze
and report our activities with incredibly precise detail. According to many government
lawyers, employees do not have an expectation of privacy. Your name, title, phone number,
even pay is public information. Soon your favorite Web sites will be supervised, maybe
even made public.
The Privacy Act promises little comfort to employees distressed at the thought that
others routinely track their activities. The law applies to the records the government
keeps on persons. But it does not prevent the boss from monitoring employee use of
government computers and networks any more than it stops monitoring the use of
It's no more appropriate to park your browser at the Playboy Web site than it is to park a
government car in front of a Hooters Restaurant. Soon the former may be as public and
obvious as the latter.
Walter R. Houser, who has more than two decades of experience in federal information
management, is webmaster for a Cabinet agency. His own Web home page is at http://www.cpcug.org/user/houser .