Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Is your office spying on your online activities?

Office spies are everywhere -- even online -- so it's best to be careful with your Internet activities at work.

Organisations are getting very peculiar about their employees' efficiency। So if you're rejoicing about the fact that you've got free Internet access at the office and are thinking of catching up with your friends on Orkut or Facebook, think twice. There might be spy software installed on the network and screenshots from your computer could well be reaching your boss every 10 minutes.

Varun Lamba*, working with an MNC in Bangalore says, "I hardly get any time to catch up with old pals as my company has blocked all social networking sites like Orkut and Facebook।" He's a bit upset about not being able to connect with friends, but is also glad that his efficiency has improved because more time is available for work.

A Japanese company's resource centre in Pune has been successful in enhancing the productivity of its trainees by regularly giving them feedback on their Internet usage in their first month on the job. The company uses softwares like 'Sonic Wall' to monitor the usage and instant feedback is given to employees who get caught surfing a bit too much. After two such warnings, serious action is taken by the company.

Ria Ghosh*, who worked as a software engineer with a leading MNC was fired following two warnings from the management regarding her chat records, which were scanned for use of offensive language. She feels, "Had I paid heed to those warnings, I wouldn't have ended up unemployed". A strong indication regarding the consequences of such actions should be given by a company to all its employees to avoid such cases.

Another IT services provider in Noida has blocked pornographic and social networking sites. However, there are other ways to access these blocked webpages -- for instance, you can access Orkut etc via www.meebo.com and www.kproxy.com, even if Orkut is blocked by your company. However, if these sites are also blocked, there is no other way left to access the websites in question.

Big Brother could be watching you in any of the following ways:

~ By installing software like 'Sonic Wall', 'Guardian Monitor' etc that help block/ monitor web usage.
~ By using tracking software and cookies. For example, emails sent and received can be tracked, including chat conversations, keystrokes and websites visited.
~ By tracking application usage. For example, 'Yahoo Tracker' is an add-on for Yahoo Messenger, which tracks the online-offline activities of users in the last 24 hours.
~ By installing spy software that can send screen shots of your computer to another computer every 10 minutes and can record chats, words in emails and website URLs.

The drawbacks

No doubt these measures help companies earn more productive hours and maintain ethics among employees, besides controlling spread of malicious programmes and viruses. However, there is a dark side to all of this:

~ Complete alienation from chatting or social networking while spending more than 10 hours a day in the office impacts employee morale. There is no chance left to maintain a balance between their work and personal lives.
Due to misuse by some employees, other innocent employees get indirectly penalised.
~ If there is any such policy in place, organisations should ensure that all their employees are made aware of it. Prevention is always better than cure. In case you get caught red-handed, the effects could range from nothing to your tenure being instantly terminated -- it all depends upon organisational policies.

Avoid being a victim:

~ Never send any email or message from the office that contains vulgar or abusive language.
Plan your work so that you don't indulge in too much chatting or 'net surfing.
Read all the company policies carefully when you join and ask the network/ system administration team if you have any doubts regarding Internet use.
Take permission before downloading and installing any stand-alone application from a website.

Some key considerations for companies:

~ Maintain a balance between security and privacy; any such evidence can be used against the company for legal purposes.
Clearly state company policy to your employees.
Give regular feedback to employees regarding Internet usage or access to prohibited websites.
Secure employee feedback on such policies, to check if they are impacting work and morale at the office.

Happy surfing!

*Names changed and company identities withheld to protect privacy.

Has surfing the Internet at work ever gotten you into trouble? Does your organisation have strict policies regarding web access? Do you think a ban on accessing social networking portals and online messenger services from the workplace is justified?

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