Office e-mail rebels unite!

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The Independent Online

When the head of IT in one of the advertising agencies in London told employees that the company would be monitoring their e-mails, most people ignored the warning. It seemed like too much hassle for the company and nobody believed the IT guys would actually go ahead with their threat.

When the head of IT in one of the advertising agencies in London told employees that the company would be monitoring their e-mails, most people ignored the warning. It seemed like too much hassle for the company and nobody believed the IT guys would actually go ahead with their threat.

A few weeks later, three designers were disciplined for sending non-business e-mail and using the network to arrange an evening out.

Restrictions on an employee's use of e-mail at work seem to be on the rise, both here and in the US. A recent study by the American Management Association found that three out of four companies record and monitor e-mail and computer files. Worryingly, that figure has more than doubled from 1997, when the last survey was conducted.

What is even more disturbing, one out of five companies reported they had dismissed workers for misuse of telecommunication equipment (read "e-mail" abuse for non-work purpose). Moreover, 54 per cent of companies in the survey monitor not just e-mail but internet use. The growth of this Big Brother attitude is clearly owing to advances in monitoring technology.

What in the old days of internet usage was done by hand, today can be done by simple software like Elron. Its software monitors internet usage and sends managers an automated e-mail alert if something untoward is detected on the network. Incoming and out-going e-mails are scanned and messages flagged that may contain confidential material. The software can also block a mass e-mail being sent by one employee to others.

There is more sophisticated Big Brother software around that takes snapshots of an employee's display screen as often as once a second. These technologies can give the boss a pretty accurate picture of your entire computer usage during a day. In fact, he or she will know everything about your work behaviour, from applications used, websites and chat rooms visited and, obviously, e-mails sent and received.

To make blocking and filtering easier for managers, Aplion Networks Inc has created a product that keeps the filtering and monitoring at the ISP site, so it is not the company's network administrator who has to manage the monitoring. Providing monitoring as managed service is a morality-free solution, since nobody in the company need feel guilty about snooping. It is simply done by a remote company who then only reports on requested individuals in case of detected abuse.

In many ways, it is clear that the monitoring is on the increase, as it can be done cheaply by low-cost software and it satisfies the primordial craving of your typical control-freak boss to know all about your movements, inner thoughts and e-mail correspondences. Sadly, this corporate voyeurism is a sign of times, and a case of technology doing a disservice to its creators. Somehow I suspect that the guys who glued together the first computer network and sent their first e-mail didn't think they had opened a Pandora's box of bosses' inquisitiveness.

In the States, though, the pendulum is beginning to swing back. After suffering all this abuse at the hands of Orwellian enthusiasts of e-mail monitoring, the employees have begun to fight back. Some brave souls are beginning to chip away at employers' power over their workers' e-mail by quoting an interesting US law called the National Labor Relations Act, which dates from the Depression era.

One example was a young programmer from Ohio who had spotted that the new way of allocating holidays offered by his company wasn't quite as advantageous as his boss made it sound in the memo. He e-mailed everybody in the company about his calculations, simply indicating that the new way of calculating would leave his colleagues worse off, and therefore the assurances given by the company were misleading.

He was promptly fired for misusing the e-mail system (officially the property of the company) by sending "provocative" messages. But the National Labor Relationship Board reversed the sacking. The task of this legal act was to prevent the bosses from abusing an employee's right to communicate freely with one another about work terms and conditions, from pay to holidays to job security. In the case of the programmer from Ohio, it has been judged applicable, despite the fact that the software company which employed him didn't actually have a union, nor was he trying to organise one. The ruling established a legal precedent for the rights of employees to use e-mail at work.

Since e-mail gives users the ability to exchange ideas and discuss what action to take, it is fundamental to the preservation of workers' rights and a new tool in the collective bargaining process. If the bosses keep pushing their obsessive control of e-mail on the workers, it is only a matter of time before they start biting back, either using law or simply encrypting their messages beyond the level easily accessible by their IT surveillance-mad technicians.

Now it is a matter of judgement, trust and intelligence on the part of employers to determine how far it is safe to go with monitoring before the wrath of abused workers turns against them in a wave of new, e-mail-led collective wage or terms bargaining.

E-mail is a cheap, immediate and emotionally powerful tool with which to raise hell and get an office revolution going. So if any boss out there suffers from obsessive, Orwellian monitoring disease, remind him that e-mail is a two-way street. The message is simple: if companies want peace of mind and cooperation from employees, hands off the e-mail monitoring, or the revolution starts right here. Monitored desktop rebels unite - the law just may be on your side.