February 21, 2000
Businesses can--and DO--monitor messages to avoid legal and technical problems
By Thomas York
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The incident soon became public, and some outside pundits decried the firings, saying they conflicted with the Times' staunch position regarding the right to free speech.
However, the Times is just one of many companies trying to gain more control over employees' use of E-mail. Concerns about company E-mail abuse--and the decision about whether to monitor E-mail use in order to avoid problems--are issues that businesses of all sizes wrestle with every day. These issues have also saddled IT managers with duties that go beyond routine support and maintenance of E-mail systems to include enforcement of policies that help protect companies against claims of sexual and racial harassment.
Because E-mail has emerged as a critical business-communication tool within the past few years, message content is under greater scrutiny. Eric Rolfe Greenberg, director of management studies at the 10,000 corporate-member American Management Association in New York, estimates that 45% of large U.S. companies monitor electronic communications, including E-mail, voice mail, and fax machines; a detailed survey by the association is due out next month.
Companies say their need to monitor E-mail reflects the realities of the modern workplace, which operates under a long list of legal guidelines. Federal and state regulatory agencies charged with enforcing gender and racial equality demand quick action to prevent human-rights law violations or workplace violence. Companies are also concerned about how easily classified business information can be distributed over E-mail.
Technical issues can also play a role in the decision-making process. Some IT managers say monitoring the flow of E-mail helps them ensure that their networks function smoothly.
At Navistar International Corp., a Chicago truck and farm-equipment manufacturer with facilities worldwide, E-mail administrator Todd Purifoy is charged with enforcing the company's E-mail policies, which allow for limited personal use of the system. Purifoy's team is most concerned about E-mail that violates file-size limits, and worms and viruses that might be attached to messages.
Purifoy uses Cameo, E-mail monitoring software recently introduced by MicroData Group Inc., to scan incoming and outgoing mail for words and key phrases against lists compiled by network managers, and also to identify E-mail viruses. Purifoy says Cameo lets his team pull up any message that's flagged and review it for possible policy violations. They can scan the entire message, including addresses, subject lines, and content. "We try to keep track of all attachments, of who's sending what, and who's breaking our size limitations," Purifoy says. "When we find people sending stuff that violates policy, we stop them."
Frequently, the violations are innocent enough, such as employees sending snapshots of recent vacations. But even if the content doesn't violate workplace policies, Purifoy says, an overflow of such messages could slow Navistar's network--or even bring it to a halt.
Just before Christmas in 1998, Purifoy devoted considerable time trying to slow the proliferation of a game titled "Elf Bowling." The game, which comes via an E-mail attachment, takes up about 1 Mbyte.
Purifoy says if every one of Navistar's 10,000 employees decided to send copies to friends and relatives, it could have brought down the company's E-mail servers in no time at all.
While there are practical reasons for monitoring E-mail, the practice can affect employee morale. E-mail monitoring is a sticky issue, and there aren't easy answers as to whether it should be considered or how it should be approached.
In most instances, employers legally have the right to monitor employee E-mail, as long as they notify workers that they might do so. State and federal courts have ruled in numerous lawsuits that employees can't always demand privacy in the workplace.
But employee advocates generally disapprove of the practice. Daniel Levine, creator of Disgruntled--an online publication that bills itself as a "business magazine for people who work for a living"--says E-mail monitoring is a violation of personal rights. "Employers are getting more sophisticated about monitoring E-mail, and employees are searching for ways to fight back," Levine says. "They're looking for ways to have the privacy they're entitled to."
continued...page 2, 3
Illustration by Jeff Jackson
Photo of Purifoy by Reid Horn
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