If you deploy monitoring software in your company, will it undermine employee morale? Or will it simply deter your staff from wasting countless hours of company time a day surfing the Internet for personal rather than business-related use? According to Doug Fowler, president of SpectorSoft Corporation, it seems that all the uproar about monitoring software and images of the boss spying over your shoulder is much ado about nothing. As chief executive of the Vero Beach, Florida-based surveillance software company, he finds that it’s more of a perception issue than a reality.

“We hear the resistance up front from potential customers,” says Fowler. “They’re concerned that management is going to come across too much like Big Brother.” But of the hundreds of thousands of installations of the company’s monitoring products, he can’t recall a single company that has said their employees were up in arms about the installation of the software and demanding its removal. “When employees are told up front that the software is being deployed, it doesn’t become that big a deal,” he asserts.

Lost productivity driving the spread of surveillance software
Though headlines scream about corporate espionage and embezzlement and even attempts at disseminating pornography in the workplace, Fowler claims those are more fringe reasons for deploying software that records computer activity. In his experience, the majority of companies are simply concerned about employee productivity. “People who buy monitoring software are concerned about the amount of time their employees are spending doing personal things on the Internet and not work-related things,” he shares. The monitoring software helps them understand just how much time is being frittered away and provides the necessary documentation to address the problem with their employees.”

A lot of studies have shown that employees average from five to 10 hours a week on the Internet, says Fowler. And a vast majority of that is for personal usage, such as receiving and sending personal e-mail, trading stocks, buying things on eBay, or reviewing last night’s game on a sports Web site. Companies want to regain that lost productivity so they can be more competitive.

Fowler notes that the second most popular reason for deploying the software is compliance. In those companies impacted by regulatory issues, the monitoring software enables them to create a record of employee communication with customers and business partners that could prove or disprove liability.

Choosing between monitoring, filtering, and detailed surveillance
There are a number of solutions on the market today that fall into the category of monitoring and surveillance software. Companies such as Websense, N2H2, and SurfControl offer enterprise solutions that filter e-communication, and block and record user visits to Web sites. They run at the server where they can centrally control Internet access over the network.

Products such as SpectorSoft CNE sit at the PC level and are used primarily to document employee PC and Internet activity rather than filter or block access to particular Web destinations. “Software that simply records Web sites that employees visit is skimming the surface,” claims Fowler. “Just because somebody visits a Web site or their computer sits at a Web site for an hour doesn’t mean that the employee was actively using that Web site for an hour. He or she might have inadvertently ended up at a Web site and then been called away to a meeting, leaving the PC sitting on that site for two hours.”

Building an airtight case for warning or reprimanding an employee
Fowler says that before management accuses an employee of wasting company time or leaking company confidential information or tying up network bandwidth downloading unlicensed music files, “they’d better have all their cards lined up.” To see the whole picture, you need a record of not only what Web sites are being visited, but what they are doing at that destination. What are they looking at on that site? Are they having a chat conversation or an instant message with somebody? What kind of e-mails are they sending and receiving? Otherwise, you risk false accusations that can land the company in serious hot water.

His own company’s product, SpectorSoft CNE, automatically captures e-mails sent and received, chat conversations, instant messages, files downloaded, Web sites visited, applications launched, and keystrokes typed. The software also takes screen snapshots at select intervals to create the equivalent of a digital surveillance tape that shows the exact sequence of everything an employee is doing on the computer. The data is captured at the PC and transferred every few minutes to a data vault on the network server. The records can be reviewed at leisure and searched by timeline or particular format (i.e., IM, e-mail, chat, etc.).

Creating an effective deterrent
“It’s the deterrent factor, more than anything, that is the beauty of surveillance software,” claims Fowler. Just knowing that they’re being monitored is often incentive enough to get employees to refrain from non-sanctioned activity. In his own company, Fowler was reluctant to install the software, yet found that there were several employees consistently “goofing off on the Internet because they could get away with it.” Once he announced the deployment of SpectorSoft CNE on their desktops, some of the targeted employees came up to Fowler and stated that it was a great wake-up call to stop wasting time. Knowing that they were being monitored, they found themselves being more productive during the day. Fowler confesses that he has only looked at the surveillance records a few times and for reasons totally different from those driving the deployment.

According to Fowler, some companies have instituted a compromise with their surveillance software. For instance, some SpectorSoft customers don’t record PC and Internet activity during lunch hours or after business hours to give employees time to use the Internet for personal purposes.

To monitor or not to monitor
If your management team views monitoring and filtering software as censorship, then that attitude is bound to permeate your workforce. In that case, Fowler agrees that deploying the technology wouldn’t be a smart move. He also believes that if management doesn’t want to spend any time reviewing the information that’s captured—or thinks that just having the software in place negates any need for direct intervention with the offending employees—then the tool isn’t going to be effective either.

But for those companies looking to assess how widespread employee PC and Internet usage problems are, or are looking to hold specific employees accountable for their actions, surveillance software can be a real asset in identifying abuses and taking corrective action. Now you have to decide whether to spend tens of thousands of dollars for an enterprise-wide, server-level solution or spend $50 per desktop license for PC-level deployment. Whether you opt for monitoring, filtering, blocking, and/or detailed surveillance, you’ll find out more about your employees’ PC and Internet usage than you ever thought you’d want to know.

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