Big Brother - or at least the boss - is watching more than a third of American workers who use the Internet on the job, according to a new study by the Privacy Foundation.
Employers continually monitor the Internet or e-mail use of about 14 million employees in the United States, and 27 million worldwide, the Denver group found in the study. According to Nielsen/Net Ratings' research, 40 million Americans have Internet access at work, and 100 million employees are online worldwide.
All this monitoring is leading employers to accumulate large databases of information that can be used to fire unsuspecting employees, the report said. Such databases can also backfire on companies, because detailed e-mail and Internet-use records could be subpoenaed and used against a company in court, it said.
And workplace monitoring is growing fast. The number of employees being watched has grown by about 50 percent annually during the past several years, although it is probably slowing down now that many companies are cutting back on technology spending, said Andrew Schulman, chief researcher for the foundation's Workplace Surveillance Project.
Growth is being pushed by the fact that it is relatively inexpensive to monitor a large number of employees, Schulman said. For example, according to the report, the U.S. Army recently paid $1.8 million for a system that will watch over 200,000 workers, which works out to a cost of $9 per person.
"That's what drives a lot of privacy problems - when it's cheap to look over someone's shoulder, then you start stockpiling large amounts of data on people," Schulman said.
Companies that sell monitoring software say there are plenty of reasons to keep an eye on employees' online doings that go beyond mean-spirited spying.
"The majority of our customers using (monitoring) software are using it to adhere to financial regulatory standards," said a spokeswoman for Redwood City's Tumbleweed Communications, which makes an e-mail-monitoring product. The Securities and Exchange Commission has strict rules governing communications between brokers and clients, and those rules include e-mail correspondence.
Websense, whose software is used to monitor 5.75 million workers, says customers use its product to cut down on wasted time at work. Personal Internet use costs companies $63 billion a year in lost productivity, the company estimates.
Schulman acknowledged that monitoring isn't always a sinister practice. But employers aren't doing a good job of informing workers when it's going on. Workers should see demonstrations of monitoring software to be used, and they should be able to see what information has been collected, he said.
Websense spokesman Ted Ladd said that the firm advises clients to tell their employees that they're being watched. But, he lamented, "A lot of the companies don't do that."
In fact, Ladd said, Websense customers often ask him not to issue press releases on their use of the product because they don't want their staff to find out. The San Diego firm counts 244 Fortune 500 companies among its clients.