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More employers taking advantage of new cyber-surveillance software
ATLANTA (CNN) -- A growing number of employers are using computer software to secretly determine which of their employees may be wasting company time using their computers to visit inappropriate Web sites and to send unauthorized e-mail.
Last year, Xerox Corporation fired 40 employees for what it said was inappropriate use of the Internet at work, and The New York Times fired 23 workers on grounds of sending potentially offensive e-mail on company computers.
"We live in a world of cubicles, closed office spaces," said Roy Young of Adavi Inc., maker of Silent Watch surveillance software. "It's difficult for managers to monitor what employees are doing. "Silent Watch gives managers a tool to monitor employee activity without having to leave their desk."
Every keystroke recorded
Young's stealthy software allows an employer to monitor dozens of computers from a single screen in real time, while recording every keystroke an employee makes, even if the data are deleted.
A recent survey by the American Management Association finds 54 percent of companies said they monitored their employees' Internet connections, while 38 percent said they reviewed worker e-mail messages.
Employer Scott Lebowitz, president of a large pet store and mail-order business in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, installed computer surveillance software after suspicions arose about how his employees were spending their work hours.
"I'd walk into their office and they would switch off to something else and that really made me wonder, what are they doing?" said Lebowitz.
After installing the new software, Lebowitz said he discovered two workers had been spending between 50 and 70 percent of their entire days on Web sites that were not work related.
Lebowitz confronted the two employees with the data and fired them.
Privacy in the digital age
But the increasing use of sophisticated tools used for worker surveillance prompts many legal questions about privacy. Law professor Jeffrey Rosen has just written a book titled "The Unwanted Gaze: The Destruction of Privacy in America."
Traditionally, U.S. courts have sided with employers on such issues.
"The courts have said that as long as employers warn employees that they're being monitored, they lower expectations of privacy in a way that gives them even more discretion to monitor," Rosen said.
Privacy advocates say changing times have led to changing work habits, which should lead to changing privacy laws. "The fact is that most people spend more time in the office than in their home nowadays," said Andrew Shen of the Electronic Privacy Information Center. "I think we shouldn't expect that the vast majority of your waking hours you don't have any privacy rights."
Employers say the issue centers on ownership. "If I own the computer, and I spend hundreds and even millions of dollars to set up my network and office space, I would want to ensure that the equipment that I'm supplying to employees is being used appropriately," Young said.
Rosen warns against the larger potential effect of computer surveillance. "It's not conducive to a free society or a really productive workplace that every moment of the day is conducted under the unblinking eye of the camera, the employer," he said.
"As citizens are beginning to realize just what it's like to live in a world where every single keystroke is being watched and tracked, I think it's making many people uncomfortable indeed," Rosen said.
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