Last month 227 British government workers were punished or fired for downloading a total 2 million pages of porn during an eight-month period. Such inappropriate Internet use, though surprising, isn't uncommon if a new, international survey is accurate.
A third of some 350 employees at randomly selected U.S., U.K. and Australian companies said they download porn at the office, according to a study conducted by a researcher at Queen's University in Belfast, Ireland. A similar number admitted they still send sexually explicit e-mails to colleagues or someone outside the workplace. Results are based on anonymous online surveys conducted from May 17 to Aug. 23.
"The most interesting thing that we see is that a small number of employees can actually put the whole company at risk, and that it's still happening even after having filtering technology for the past 10 years," said Susan Getgood, senior vice president of marketing at SurfControl, a Scotts Valley, Calif.-based Web filtering company that commissioned the study.
"Even more astounding are the kind of sites they're going to," she continued. "Pornography tends to have the most spyware, malicious code and all kinds of malicious things that can jump into your computer without your knowledge."
That the problem was more pervasive at companies with 500 or more employees was not surprising. "The odds of it happening increase the more people you have in your employ. It's just the basic math of it," Getgood said.
The author of the study, which had a margin of error of 5.2%, was not available for comment. But Getgood said companies were chosen at random from publicly available sources, such as phone directories, and then asked via letter to participate. Those that agreed then let employees answer the online questions. Slightly more than half of companies involved hail from the United States.
Many questions revolved around downloading and trading sexual content, though the term was left open for interpretation. In addition to those who admitted accessing or passing on potentially offensive material at work, 16% said they would consider taking legal action if they saw pornographic images on a colleague's computer.
"Clearly there is still a problem," Getgood said. "Employees in companies of all sizes are downloading and accessing inappropriate material at work."
In addition to legal liabilities from sexual harassment claims, there's the potential for network infection when such sites are not banned at the workplace and enforced through appropriate use policies.
"It doesn't matter whether it's one person or 100 -- all it takes is one person to download some malicious code and the whole company is exposed," Getgood said.