Your office manager is watching you

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The Independent Online
IT'S LATE in the evening, and after a hard day of typing reports and scrutinising spread sheets, laboriously completed during several hours of unpaid overtime, a young office worker decides that he'll reward himself with a quick trip to his favourite internet site to check on the football news. Almost immediately, his computer access is blocked by a message on his screen, and a female voice informs him, gently but insistently: "You have performed an operation against the company's computer usage policy. Please log out immediately."

The office worker has been caught red-handed. What he doesn't know is that his boss has installed a computer pro-gramme called Desktop Surveillance which allows managers to monitor the computer usage of their employees. It can be done openly or covertly, and it spells doom for the office web surfer or games player. On the other hand, it could be a godsend for managers wanting to maximise productivity, and a gift for big-brother bosses eager to pry on their employees.

Daniel Sobstel is the 26-year-old computer wizard who invented the programme. He runs Omniquad, a three-man software company out of a cramped office in east London. His business is growing - and fast - and he already numbers health authorities, banks and stockbrokers among his clients.

He insists to reporters from BBC2's Money Programme that his computer software doesn't threaten employees' civil liberties or privacy.

"With Desktop Surveillance installed on your company's computer systems, you will never be accused of something you haven't done. And after all, if you've done nothing wrong, what's the problem?" he says.

Civil liberties campaigners are not convinced that such new technology is ever going to be on the side of the workers. David Preston, a specialist in business ethics at the University of East London, argues that it could give unscrupulous bosses an opportunity to get rid of people they simply don't like.

"I suspect that there's a hidden agenda here. Companies aren't really concerned with a little bit of internet misuse or sending a few private e-mails here and there. What they are really concerned with is identifying people they distrust. And they could use new technology to collect evidence that will ultimately remove people whom they don't like," he says.

Whatever the civil liberties implications of such new software, the misuse of computers in the workplace is becoming a problem. Britain is the second- biggest consumer of hardcore pornography on the internet, and there has been a series of high-profile sackings at places like the MoD, NatWest Markets and the BBC of employees using their office computers to view adult websites.

Moreover, the very existence of the modern office with its internet access and e-mails has created a legal minefield that may only be negotiable with the effective monitoring of computer usage.

A hastily written e-mail to a colleague is in law a published document, and can be produced as evidence. That's something Microsoft's Bill Gates is currently finding out to his cost. His disparaging e-mails about Microsoft's competitors have been read out in open court as part of his battle with the US government's competition authorities. And closer to home, the insurance company Norwich Union was recently sued by the Western Provident Association about a defamatory internal e-mail. Norwich Union was forced to apologise and stump up pounds 450,000 in damages and costs.

But the Orwellian world of office surveillance involves more than just a few new computer programs. In the last few years there has been an exponential increase in the use of surveillance cameras - both overt and covert - by the police, local authorities and employers. It's now possible to install secret cameras inside an office smoke detector, a box file or even an office clock.

GBC, a business with an annual turnover of pounds 3m based in the picturesque Hertfordshire village of Welwyn, is the UK's leading manufacturer of what it likes to describe as "Europe's most discreet camera systems". Its clients are mainly in retail businesses. With pounds 1.5bn of theft committed annually in the retail trade, almost half of that by employees, it's no wonder that the company is currently growing at around 35 per cent a year.

Using secret cameras to catch office pilferers may seem fair enough, but what's to stop the same technology being used to secretly monitor workers' cigarette breaks, or record the office gossip in the toilets? Very little. As the Money Programme discovered, there is currently no law in the UK to protect privacy in the workplace.

GBC's managing director Julian Sharples, bearded and relaxed in an open- necked denim shirt, stresses that he wants his equipment to be used ethically, and not for "fishing expeditions". But he admits that he has no control over what people do with his cameras.

Sometimes even the best-laid plans come unstuck, and the most unlikely people can come to grief. One security specialist from the south-east of England was recently called in by a local police force to try and find out who was stealing money from a fruit machine in the police social club. Secret cameras were fitted and the investigating team watched and waited. And eventually the mission was successful - too successful. Not only was the social club pilferer caught and sacked, but a close viewing of the secret video revealed a police inspector in flagrante delicto with one of the social club barmaids on the snooker table. The inspector has since decided to pursue career opportunities elsewhere. As has the barmaid.

The brave new world of computer monitoring and secret cameras in the workplace is here to stay. And the temptation for even the most benevolent of bosses to keep an eye on what their workers are doing in company time may be just too great to resist. And if they want to find something on even the most assiduous and loyal of workers, the chances are that they will.

As Mr Sobstel himself admits: "I think all of us have logged in to illicit websites at one time or another. Our experience shows that practically wherever there is internet access, people will use it to view things that they shouldn't."

The 'Money Programme' report on office surveillance will be screened on BBC2 at 7.30pm tonight.