Beware! Your Office Internet Is Watching You

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Beware! Your Office Internet Is Watching You

By Dennis McCafferty

Staff Writer

Good morning, state employee. Step right in.

Our research shows that, while you were supposed to be typing in government directory information on our World Wide Web site, you actually e-mailed your Aunt Betsy for two hours and chatted about vacation plans. Then, when you were assigned to conduct trend analysis of federal Medicaid reimbursement to states, you were actually typing in your NCAA basketball Final Four picks on the ESPN Web site.

Any explanation as to how this activity is in the taxpayers' interest?

If you're a state or local government employee who (mis)uses a computer work station, you may be in for this kind of grilling. At least that's what companies such as WinWhatWhere Corp. of Kennewick, Wash., and Kansmen Corp. of Milpitas, Calif., are hoping.

These companies are tiny now. But they're eyeing growth with affordable Internet monitoring software that government officials have embraced. The products are helping those officials keep tabs on employee computer abuse.

Employees with computer workstations are spending nearly a full working day per week online, according to a 1996 study conducted by FIND/SVP, a research firm in New York. So the products come in handy. In fact, government customers say having this kind of a product is the next best thing to being there - literally being there, that is, watching over an employee's shoulder.

Since December, Kansmen has enjoyed at least 1,400 downloads of its LittleBrother product and isn't coy about its intended use. "LittleBrother Is Now Watching You On Windows 95'' a company statement reads. (The downloads are free for 30 days, after which it can be bought for $295 to $495, depending on the size of the network.) For Kansmen, the public sector's interest has been a pleasant surprise, accounting for one-quarter of the product's distribution. State governments are the largest public sector customer.

"It's quite amazing,'' said Jens Andersen, sales manager at Kansmen. "When we released it, we targeted for private business. But we got such a big response from state government, we figured we need to start marketing to them, too.''

The state of Vermont is one happy customer. The Secretary of State office there hooked up four dozen staffers to elaborate workstations, spending $100 each for Internet and intranet links. An internal memo clearly states that workers must "be responsible about how much time you spend visiting sites that are not strictly work related.'' But that didn't stop them from spending a large chunk of their work days trying to find the Heaven's Gate Web site after all the hoopla over the mass cult suicide in San Diego last month.

LittleBrother is keeping that sort of surfing to a minimum, said John Howland Jr., deputy secretary of state.

"It's the kind of product that if you don't have it, you need it,'' Howland said. "But if you have it, and the staff knows it, you don't need it.''

WinWhatWhere's technology doesn't just track Internet usage. It monitors employees' use of the entire computer system. The software keeps track of every active window that goes up, the time spent on a certain screen and the number of keystrokes and mouse clicks used.

"Horribly enough,'' said Richard Eaton, company president, in mock shock tones, "some customers are using it to see who's goofing off on the Net. I'll sell it to them though.

"You just want to make sure someone isn't hanging out at Sports Illustrated all day. A police department in Colorado bought it last week. The captain wanted to make sure the investigators aren't hanging out, not doing what they should. I guess he's investigating his investigators.''

It's not always so Big Brother-like. Eaton said local libraries also use the product to see how patrons are using the public-access Internet. Although he declined to cite specifics, Eaton estimated that the government market has grown at a 50 percent rate in the last year.

It's too early to track how the market for computer monitoring software is doing, as the product hasn't become an industry standard, said Richard Villars, director of network software research for International Data Corp., Framingham, Mass. In fact, many managers oppose using this sort of technology.

"They feel their employees are adults, and they're not going to stop them from going anywhere on the Web,'' Villars said. "They feel employees should be measured by performance.''

At the Florida Department of Transportation, officials found the technology necessary to use on a spot case basis - when they suspected that certain employees were abusing the privilege of a computer workstation. An installation of a local area network version of WinWhatWhere cost less than $500.

Their suspicions have often been confirmed. A $28,000-a-year technician was using the computer to run his own mail-order shop on government time. WinWhatWhere showed he was sending out ads on the
Internet and carrying customer records on his PC.

"We're not talking about people who use the computer to write Aunt Martha,'' said Craig Brown, information systems auditor for Florida's Department of Transportation. "We're talking about people who run their own personal business. They came to work for the state of Florida.''


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