Words and Pictures

with Elizabeth Walton

Virtual Escape

Elizabeth Walton writes on Big Brother in the Wokplace in The Weekend AustralianAre staff going AWOL on the Net?

Annual leave is extinct. Kaputt, forgotten, finished. Trash that fading leave-request form – you won’t need it anymore. Access to the WWW through your personal workstation is your virtual escape from the office. Collect full wages, leave any time, go anywhere. The boss won’t even know about it! Aloha, surfin-city, here I come. Right?

Wrong. Proxy servers, firewalls and net filters build a profile of every web site accessed by every end-user. In other words, the boss knows where you went, how long you stayed out there, and what you saw. And guess what: they even know about the sweet-nothings you whispered in emails. That includes chat-room posts. If you go net-surfing on work time, you’re busted, baby. You’ve left a tell-tail trail of your escapade leading right up to the desk where you’re sitting in your sopping wet-suit. Farewell Hawaii, hello Big Brother.

Eduardo Perez, who handles Customer Support at OzEmail – one of Australia’s most popular ISPs – says net surfing on company time is no big deal – because the net-novelty eventually wears off. “We do have some laughs over what we find on user’s homepages – but I could simply say that you will get sick of it after a while.”

In Australia it may seem like the larikin’s lerk-a-day-world, but it’s certainly no laughing matter for US employees who have been sacked for nicking off on the net while the bundy-clock is ticking. With corporate online time increasing, it’s not an issue Australian companies can afford to joke about either. Ramin Marzbani, who heads up the internet research group www.consult, says Australians have steadily increased their net use over the last two years. “But now we’re seeing it during business hours too – like at least 30 per cent over the last six months”.

With the latest technology, companies can compare productivity reports to non-work related time on the net. They can also bar any sites which are considered – for whatever reason – unsuitable for the workplace. In effect, web-filters log-out any doubts that staff might be net-nattering while you think they’re working productively.

‘To Surf and Protect’ is the marketing pitch used by the US web-filter company CyberPatrol. The new generation of tools like SurfWatch, CyberPatrol and NetNanny – most of which were originally used by parents to protect children from ‘adult’ net content – have been reinvented for the corporate world. Now they’re protecting productivity and the company image. Cyberspace is Uncle Sam’s new frontier.

George Banky, a consultant with Melbourne-based PCPlus, says net-presence dramatically increases security risks. The potential for confidential data to casually float into the hands of competitors through the keystrokes of disgruntled employees is a very real threat. And it’s a risk most companies would rather keep quiet about. Just exactly what kind of net-monitoring is going on behind the computer screen is highly sensitive material. “People are not terribly forthcoming in admitting they’ve got a problem”, he said.

An even bigger problem facing online corporations is sex. In cyberspace it seems that enough is never enough. Jacaline Reilly, Customer Service Manager at Secure Computing, says 90 per cent of all net searches involve sex. Secure Computing’s product ‘SmartFilter’ can be customised to block any category of web site which companies don’t want their staff to access. Secure has staff in the US working full-time updating control lists of excluded sites – which are electronically posted to users each week. It’s a never ending task. And it’s a serious pursuit. Companies risk being sued by staff if their network is used to view pornographic sites.

It’s not that hard to stumble into explicit material on the net. A seemingly innocent web search using the Anzwers Search Engine on say, the word ‘WebTrack’ – SmartFilter’s old product name – matches 819 sites. They are sexually explicit sites. Yet the search word is the brand name of a net-filtering product – the last thing you would expect to have any connection with explicit material.

Smart web designers have found ways to enter common words into their web sites that force them to the top of net-searches, depending on how the search engine operates. If you’re using SmartFilter those matches won’t show up. Your request will go out to the firewall and literally bounce back off it again.

But what happens if your company’s website finds its way onto the banned list inadvertently? You don’t have to have explicit material on your site in order to be blocked. The filter used by the NSW Department of School Education blocked an entire search engine – DeJa News. It also blocked Reuters news agency, and the whole NSW Government website.

The blocks have since been lifted – but getting off the ‘CyberNot’ list might not be that easy for individual companies. Says Jacaline Reilly: “You would really have to look at some campaign of direct contact with companies to readvertise your site. But hey listen – the web is a free area. People block sites for all kinds of reasons. You can’t force me to come to your site.”

Net filtering is a complex issue. It has its pluses and minuses. At the end of the day, a human interprets the information the proxy records – and a human decides what to filter. But the question of what to do about the resulting human resource issues is a different kettle of fish.

Peter Corroneous of the Internet Industry Association warns about the resentment which can filter into the workplace if employees feel they are being spied on. “Surveillance of staff is not conducive to building a climate of trust. There needs to be a balanced approach. People should be encouraged to use the internet, but of course employers should not have to tolerate widespread fraudulent use of their resources. This is not an internet issue – it is a corporate policy/cultural issue.”

It’s a sentiment that Gary Brack, CEO of the NSW Federation of Employers agrees with. “It’s clear that there are problems. People are no doubt going to assert that what they do on the net is subject to their own privacy entitlements – well, we reject that. You don’t have free access to the phone or any other resources at work – so why should you have free access to the web? Whether the material happens to be sexually explicit or the footy is irrelevant. Use of the internet for inappropriate time-wasting is clearly in breach of their contract. In the end it will be a question of how management manages”.

Maybe you might need that leave application after all.

Email Rools OK!

The US Oregon State Acceptable Use Policy is a good example of how to regulate use of the net at work.

The policy defines any electronic communication as corporate ‘publishing’. The content must look like official correspondence – rather than a product of ‘pop culture’ – just the same as you would expect in any other form of publishing.

This effectively bans employees from emailing chat rooms or list serves – because a posting would be viewed as official state publishing. It also outlaws use of email nick-names, Smilies and ‘quotes of the day’ as signatures.

Ozzie Rools.html

Corporate nettiquete guidelines could protect corporations and employees from liability. Law firm Gilbert and Tobin’s Internet Compliance Manual suggests ways for Australian companies to sidestep the litigation increasing overseas – including a case where legal action was brought against the Executive Director of a European ISP which facilitated access to pornographic material.


  1. I was horrified to discover that from the Mac Book Pro I had been given by the company I worked for, all of my emails, even from my personal account, sent outside of office hours, were being uploaded to the company server, and available for EVERYONE in the company to read. When I tried to delete one that was of a very personal nature, it wouldn’t disappear. Instead it was flagged in bright green and “DELETED” written next to it!

  2. Wow Cathy that’s quite a frightening experience and it’s the sort of issue most employees are probably not fully aware of. This article was originally published in The Weekend Australian in 1998, so its fair to say the scenario is even worse today.