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Employees to execs: It's OK to watch

More than half of an average company's employees surf the Internet for fun while at work, but many workers say they don't mind if their employers control when and what they view.

You know employees are using the Internet during work to book a family vacation or check the progress of the NBA playoffs. But what you may not realize is that many of them say you have the right to monitor or stop them.

According to a new survey by Rochester, N.Y.-based Harris Interactive Inc. and sponsored by Websense Inc., the San Diego-based Internet filtering and security firm, 61% of 500 employees surveyed at U.S. companies said they use the Internet for personal use. And 50% of them said they would rather give up their morning coffee than the personal Internet use.

Use of the Internet at work seems to be a given. Still, few of those employees cry foul when it comes to their privacy at work. In fact, an overwhelming majority (92%) agreed that their companies have the right to use filtering technology to govern what sites they should be allowed to visit.

This should come as good news to CIOs who may think that any kind of monitoring would create a hostile work environment or play the role of Big Brother.

"We were very cautious not to put into place what some people think are draconian measures," said Markus Weidner, associate vice president and director of IT at Pennoni Associates Inc., a Philadelphia-based civil engineering firm. "So we focus on sites that carry liability."

Weidner said he uses Websense to prevent employees from visiting sites that contain pornography, weapons sales, racial hatred or anything else that could cause liability problems for the company or the employee.

This liability scare has fueled software such as Websense and given way to countless other vendors including SurfControl PLC in Scotts Valley, Calif.; 8e6 Technologies in Orange, Calif.; and Secure Computing Corp. in San Jose, Calif.

Weidner thinks that employee acceptance of Internet filtering and monitoring is a sign of the times, in a country where national security issues are in the newspaper every day.

"Five years ago people weren't very comfortable with it," Weidner said. "But today people are more used to scrutiny and security measures. A lot of employees are already used to the fact that other elements and other aspects of their lives (outside of work) are being observed as well."

The Websense survey also warns that employees and IT directors have a wide difference of opinion on just how much time workers spend surfing the Web for fun.

In a separate online survey conducted by Websense, employees reported using the Internet for personal reasons an average of three hours per week. But 351 U.S. "IT decisions-makers" surveyed estimated that the average worker spent nearly six hours per week using the Internet for personal reasons. Websense said IT managers are not overestimating.

"I think employees are apt to understate their use (of the Internet)," said Websense vice president and general counsel Mike Newman. "I think it ties into the addictive nature of the Internet. I think people lose track of time. You lose track of time as you click through one link to another."

According to the survey, the most popular personal uses of the Internet at work were map and driving directions sites (82%), news sites (80%) and weather sites (76%).

And 12% of employees admitted to visiting a pornographic Web site while at work; however 95% of those people said they had visited the site accidentally.

Newman said managers and employees often differ over what is an appropriate use of Web filtering. For instance, some employers take a "binary" view of filtering, allowing employees to visit only work-related sites while blocking all others.

Newman said a better approach is to block sites that are dangerous to the company and to the employee, such as spyware sites, phishing sites or sites that might create a liability or security problem.

"But in terms of travel or sports sites, our product allows employers to set a quota time for employees, which can be set to a half hour or 45 minutes a day where they can visit sites in certain categories," Newman said. "Once they reach that category, they've used up their time for that given day."

Weidner said he uses Websense to warn employees who visit sites tagged as unrelated to work that their Internet activity is being logged. They have the option to click away that warning message and continue on.

Weidner said he doesn't actively monitor the Internet use of his company's 750 employees. However, if a manager is concerned about an employee's lack of productivity and he is considering disciplinary action, Weidner can provide a complete record of that employee's Internet activity for any given period.

Weidner said a bigger benefit of using Web filtering and security technology has been the total elimination of spyware from the company by blocking sites that download spyware onto desktops.

"In the months leading up to our decision to [buy Websense technology] we were probably dealing with no less than 10 to 15 incidents per week that were spyware related. At the time it was pretty time-consuming. We were pretty much slammed, unable to focus on more strategic initiatives."

After a couple months with filtering technology, spyware problems disappeared, he said.

Let us know what you think about the story; e-mail: Shamus McGillicuddy, News Writer

This article originally appeared on

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