- By Doug Simpson
- Oct 02, 2000
Working for the city of Phoenix, Mike Ingersoll has learned one odd fact
about computers: They can make smart employees act like very dumb employees.
"Some of them act like sixth graders," said Ingersoll, Phoenix's assistant
personnel director. "I've seen some real stupidity."
In one case, Ingersoll reprimanded a Phoenix employee who had a rock-solid
work history. The offense? The man downloaded photographs of explicit sex
acts from the Internet. Then he printed them out and passed them out to
"What was this guy thinking?" Ingersoll said.
Information technology helps state and local governments serve the public,
but it also forces governments to further consider policing their employees.
No employer wants workers checking box scores and stock quotes all day.
But like racial jokes or other off-color comments, a foolish act such as
distributing dirty pictures can expose governments to expensive lawsuits.
"This can go way beyond somebody just wasting time goofing off at the
computer," Ingersoll said. "This kind of thing can create a work environment
that other employees feel is offensive or hostile."
State and local governments are beginning to protect themselves against
the legal dangers posed by employees' e-mail and Internet use. Concerned
about everything from cyberslacking to civil liability, governments are
instituting "acceptable use" policies to inform and warn workers about inappropriate
computer use. And to make sure employees behave, governments are installing
software that blocks "unacceptable" Web sites and keeps records of the sites
"We've really got to be vigilant about this to make sure it doesn't
become a problem," said Lera Riley, Phoenix's personnel director. "We've
got to make sure that our employees are clear about what they can and can't
do with their computers."
Governments' increased concern about computer use comes as major private
corporations are cracking down on workplace Web surfers. Xerox Corp. fired
40 workers last year for surfing pornographic and retail Web sites. In July,
Dow Chemical Co. fired 50 workers and disciplined another 200 for e-mailing
pornographic and violent images from company computers.
And twice in the past two years, even the White House has disciplined
workers for visiting pornographic sites.
Monitoring and filtering software programs are the most common tools
to prevent workers from getting themselves and their employers into trouble
online. The most up-to-date programs keep track of the Web sites employees
visit. Most programs also block sites that deal in subjects — pornography,
gambling, violence, games — generally considered off-limits.
And on top of monitoring simple Internet use, software companies such
as Telemate.Net say their products can even measure employees' productivity
while they're on the computer.
In the private sector, those programs' popularity has surged. From 1997
to 2000, the number of major private-sector companies that monitor their
employees' computer and Internet use increased from 35 percent to 45 percent,
according to a recent study by the American Management Association. And
the study found that the number of companies that check up on employee e-mail
messages jumped from 15 percent to 27 percent. The public sector is following
"Government has become an important market for us, and it's growing
fast," said Heather Cook, spokeswoman for SurfControl Inc., maker of LittleBrother
and other monitoring software.
Many state and local governments have drafted acceptable-use policies
governing the Internet and e-mail use. The policies vary from government
to government, sometimes from agency to agency and department to department.
But they all begin with a simple guideline: Computer use must always be
related to official business.
From there, most governments allow managers to modify acceptable-use
policies. And in developing the policies, governments often operate differently
than the private sector. "In a lot of the feedback we've gotten, we've found
that governments are more likely to involve their workers in developing
their acceptable-use policies," Cook said.
When Guilford County, N.C., instituted a new acceptable-use policy
last year, it stated that computers were to be used solely for county business.
Jenks Crayton, the county tax director, found the policy too strict, and
the county allowed him to alter the policy for his department.
"I would never ask my staff to accept a policy that I wouldn't expect
them to adhere to," Crayton said. "I just thought the policy was too strict.
The Internet and e-mail are like the telephone, and if you want to call
home to make sure your child has gotten home safely, no one in the world
would say that's inappropriate use of the telephone. We should treat the
computer in the same way."
Once an acceptable-use policy and monitoring software are in place,
governments can still face several difficult issues. Which workers should
be monitored? How often should a worker be monitored? How much monitoring
is too much? And the practice also creates an additional problem: Once workers'
Internet use is documented, it becomes public record. The media have the
right to explore those documents, however embarrassing they may be.
"We try to keep employees informed so they don't ever use [the computer]
for purposes that would be of interest to the local newspaper," said Barbara
Weaver, chief information officer of Guilford County. "It's always possible,
on a slow news day, that a reporter would be interested to find out that
people are using county computers to do something like have a football pool."
Instead of spending time and money spying on their workers, most governments
trust their employees and only monitor e-mail and Internet use when requested
by a manager. "Monitoring everyone all the time is just a cop-out," said
San Francisco CIO Lisa Lowrey. "A supervisor should know without monitoring
that people are out surfing the Web instead of working."
Monitoring can also be expensive. The software generates enormous amounts
of data, and managers have to make sense of that data. A government that
constantly monitors workers ends up wasting both man-hours and pricey computer
memory space, said Richard Engliss, information systems manager for the
"There's a real financial trade-off," Engliss said. "Monitoring can
be expensive if you do a lot of it. It takes up a lot of money, and it takes
up a lot of time."
In El Paso County, Texas, it's part of Robert Elliott's job to keep
track of the Web sites that county employees visit. When requested by a
department head, Elliott uses SurfControl's SuperScout software to compile
data about workers' surfing habits. He's learned that Tuesday is the most
popular day for surfing. He's learned that the early afternoon is the most
popular time of day to surf. And Elliott has learned one important fact
about monitoring: When they're aware that monitoring is going on, workers
are much less likely to surf non-work-related sites. Elliott recently collected
a month's worth of information about the sites visited by a 40-person department.
The data filled 1,200 pages. "They were looking at movie Web pages, adult
sites, sports sites, shopping sites, job sites — just about everything,"
said Elliott, a systems engineer.
Then their supervisor warned the workers about excessive Web surfing.
In the next month's monitoring, Elliott said he compiled less than 100 pages
of data on the same group of employees. And almost none of it came from
non-work-related Web sites.
"I can't say if those employees are working harder now or not," Elliott
said. "But I can tell you they're not surfing the Internet anymore."
But as monitoring becomes more common, the practice can create a puzzling
dilemma. Monitoring may increase productivity and protect against liability,
but governments that act like Big Brother run the risk of angering employees
concerned about their privacy.
"You're damned if you do monitor and damned if you don't monitor," said
Robert Morgester, a California deputy attorney general who specializes in
computer issues. "If I'm your boss, and I don't monitor you, and you start
sending harassing e-mails, well, then I'm liable. If I am monitoring you,
then you're going to get upset at me for monitoring you."
Most governments say few employees bring up privacy concerns when informed
of monitoring. Phoenix CIO Danny Murphy said complaints wouldn't matter
much anyway. "If you work for us," Murphy said, "then we're going to set
But legislators have recently tried to set a limit on employers by not
allowing secretive monitoring. A bill co-sponsored by U.S. Rep.
Bob Barr (R-Ga.) and Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) would require public and private
employers to notify workers before tracking e-mail or Internet use. The
California legislature recently sent a similar bill to Gov. Gray Davis.
The California bill, which Davis has not signed, would force employers to
get employees' permission before monitoring e-mail and Internet use.
"There's a concern that technology has raced ahead of the many people
who use it every day," said the California bill's author, state Sen. Debra
Bowen. "Many people just don't understand what can happen to information
stored on their computer. They go to work, and they're given an e-mail account
and a password. Well, the normal expectation when you receive a password
is that you have privacy — but that's not the case. It just makes sense
to inform people of what their employers are monitoring."
Grudgingly, even privacy advocates acknowledge that public and private
employers have the right to track employees' workplace Internet and e-mail
"We don't think there should be monitoring," said David Sobel of the
Electronic Privacy Information Center. "But employers have been given wide
latitude to do this, so realistically, we're pushing the need for advance
Most governments already provide advance notice: Em-ployees who don't
agree to be monitored aren't allowed into government computer systems.
Although there is broad agreement among governments that monitoring
software is necessary, some take issue with the combined policy of both
monitoring Internet use and blocking inappropriate Web sites. San Francisco
CIO Liza Lowrey said monitoring software is "a necessary tool" but said
to filter out inappropriate sites sends employees the wrong message.
"If I worked for an organization that was both filtering and monitoring,
it would tell me that my employer did not trust me," she said. "So many
public servants are working here to serve the public and to do good. Why
send them the message that they're not trusted? We're hiring adults to do
their jobs here. Filtering just shouldn't be necessary."
Many governments disagree, however, and use software that both monitors
Internet use and filters out "unacceptable" Web sites.
"We think it's prudent for us to be ahead of things," Murphy said. "We
don't want to give people the chance to go to places they shouldn't."
With software and acceptable-use policies in place, no state or local
government has had disciplinary problems on a scale with the incidents at
Dow and Xerox.
Since 1995, Phoenix has punished 27 workers for improper use of the
computer, according to personnel director Lera Riley. Five workers received
written reprimands, 21 workers were suspended and one man was fired.
The dismissed man was no prize employee: His other offenses included
falsifying a city document, sexually harassing a female co-worker and driving
a city vehicle after drinking alcohol. Surfing porn sites was just the final
Government managers say this case is typical: Computer misuse is often
just a symptom of a bigger problem. "Usually, you don't even need monitoring
software to know that someone has been goofing off instead of working hard,"
Except in extreme cases, most governments take a lenient view of first-time
offenders, whether they're caught looking at stock quotes or pornography.
In the case of the Phoenix worker who distributed pornographic photographs,
Mike Ingersoll said the man received a five-day suspension — a punishment
that some managers might consider too soft. After all, why not fire a guy
who spent his work hours passing out indecent pictures?
"In general, we're trying to correct, not punish," Ingersoll said. "Especially
if an employee is doing a good job otherwise, we just want to correct that
behavior and see that it doesn't happen again."
Phoenix's Riley said most offenders are solid workers "who just made
a very, very bad call. They are usually very apologetic and very embarrassed.
When they're punished, they just take their medicine and go on about their
lives as even better employees than they were before."
—Simpson is a writer based in New Orleans.