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Think you're a good employee? Office snooping software can tell

  • Story Highlights
  • Behavior modeling software can build profile of workers from office e-footprint
  • Developed from tool for corporate lawyers to more HR-related issues
  • Company behind software claims it can tell who is a 'good' employee
  • Rights groups believe software can have negative influence on staff psychology
By Matt Ford
For CNN
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(CNN) -- Even the most cunning of slackers may have finally met their match in a new piece of office surveillance software.

Naughty or nice? Snooping software could catch you out as "bad" employee, according to your e-footprint.

Naughty or nice? Snooping software could catch you out as "bad" employee, according to your e-footprint.

A program has been developed by U.S. firm Cataphora and "encompasses a large number of techniques for analyzing emotive tone in electronic communications", according to the company's Web site.

In other words, it can separate the good employees from the bad by analyzing workers 'electronic footprints' -- the emails they send, the calls they make and the documents they write.

By doing this it builds up a picture of how an office functions by studying the patterns of who is talking to who, and flagging up causes for concern, like when someone changes language suddenly (a sign of the need for greater security) or STARTS WRITING IN CAPITALS (which could mean a worker is in a highly emotional state). Read more on Caps Lock crimes and misdemeanors.

"Our software builds a multi-dimensional model of normal behavior," Cataphora CEO Elizabeth Charnock told CNN. "Not all abnormal behavior is bad or dangerous, of course. However, most bad or dangerous behavior is statistically abnormal."

What constitutes normal changes between employees and over time, but Charnock claims Cataphora takes that into account and provides accurate intelligence offering genuine insight.

"[We can tell] who is really being consulted by other employees, and on which topics; who is really making decisions," says Charnock. "What employees actually think about their managers and other topics that are sensitive enough to not be truthfully answered on questionnaires or surveys."

Legal tool to office Big Brother

The software began as a tool to assist lawyers with the huge corporate databases often subpoenaed as evidence in trials but has now moved into human resources.

"We found over time that many of our investigations had at least some human resources (HR) flavor to them," says Charnock.

"For example, a happy employee is likely to be a cooperative witness rather than a whistle-blower. A disgruntled employee is likely to take less care in the performance of his work. As we started to gain more prominence, people ranging from boutique HR consulting and law firms to management consultants began to contact us."

Exactly what gets scanned varies from case to case.

"It depends what the exact needs are," says Charnock. "If someone wants to give us every electronic shred of data, we'll take it."

But Charnock is keen to stress Cataphora isn't only about bosses spying on their team -- it works both ways.

"Managers get to evaluate the employees far more than the employees have the opportunity to evaluate the managers," she says.

"If you've ever had a really bad manager, I don't need to tell you how great a gain that is."

The idea is to look at the big picture of how an organization functions at every level, rather than to simply snoop.

"To be clear, we really don't care about people doing normal everyday things like emailing their friends from work or watching videos on YouTube," says Charnock.

"Productivity has to do with what's of value you produce for your employer; if for example you create great sales proposals while watching YouTube, more power to you."

What do you think? Big brother or effective management tool? Let us know in the "Sound off" box below.

Are you 'good' or 'bad'?

What Cataphora does is look at the patterns an individual creates and how they fit in the general patterns of communication in the office in order to discern who are the effective workers and managers.

"At the risk of sounding simplistic, [productive employees] are frequently consulted by others on relevant topics," says Charnock.

"They generate lots of content that is demonstrably read and re-used by others -- or perhaps they are an effective 'distributor' of such information.

"The social or organizational dimension is really important here, because otherwise it becomes a contest of who generates the most content. And content that no one ever uses by definition generally has very little value."

In contrast, an unproductive employee doesn't perform many clear tasks or really generate content, answer questions, fill out forms, or produce other evidence of work that interacts with other people.

And the popular guy who knows everyone yet never does anything should definitely beware: "We do have extensive filters to try to weed out people who are highly productive in areas such as sports banter and knowledge of local bars," says Charnock.

Too much trust in computers?

But not everyone is so enthusiastic, and digital campaigners groups' responses to the potential of Cataphora have been lukewarm at best.

"Businesses should be careful about the implication of control and monitoring," Jim Killock, Executive Director of the Open Rights Group, told CNN.

"The idea that employees could be judged by patterns in their email traffic must raise concerns: False positives always occur in any analysis, and it seems worrying that individuals may have their actions interpreted with suspicion at a distance by HR departments. People tend to believe what the computer tells them rather more than they should."

More than that, Killock believes using such software can have a negative psychological impact on a workplace.

"It is a powerful signal that you do not fully trust the people you are paying or perhaps don't invest the time and care to properly manage them," he says.

"Ask yourself if this will make staff more efficient, or more risk averse and normative? Monitoring could actually damage performance among your more creative staff members.

"Surveillance, when not absolutely necessary, implies a lack of trust which can only undermine relations between managers and employees. Often surveillance is simply a way of papering over the cracks caused by bad management."

But Charnock believes employees have nothing to fear from Cataphora.

"Smarter monitoring software will actually preserve the privacy of people who are only 'guilty' of minor infractions," she says.

"Such as using one or more of the seven dirty words. Or saying that they'd like to 'kill their boss' which generally should be understood as a turn of phrase rather than as a physical threat.

"Employers -- especially in this climate -- aren't going to pay people to snoop through their employees' electronic activities for sheer entertainment value -- for one thing, what most employees do on a daily basis just isn't all that interesting.

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"No one objects to software that scans electronic communications looking for content that everyone can generally agree is offensive, such as child pornography. But someone who is creating potentially millions of dollars of liability for their employee is also a real, if different, problem. And not just for the employer, but also for the other employees who depend on that employer for their livelihood."

Ultimately, true privacy only begins outside the workplace -- and the law supports that. In the United States, at least all email and other electronic content created on the employer's equipment belongs to the employer, not the employee. Slackers would do well to remember that.

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