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Not safe for work: Why cyberslacking makes you the company’s most valuable employee

Your boss is reading your e-mail, spying on the sites you visit and recording your keystrokes. The biggest time wasters used to be punished, but the newest management philosophy says they should be rewarded. Why cyberslacking makes you the company’s most valuable employee

If wasting time at work is an art form, then we are all artists. We each compulsively engineer our own system of self-reward, refined through repetition: 15 minutes of data entry buys you five minutes of Angry Birds. Upon release from an intolerably long meeting, surely you’re owed 10 minutes on Facebook.  Now respond to at least four work e-mails before checking to see if anyone has noticed the hilarious comment you left on your cousin’s vacation photos. Then quickly visit your favourite Finnish design blog. We all share a common goal: the avoidance of detection.  We memorize keyboard shortcuts to toggle between apps, and we keep our IM windows slyly minimized. We fancy ourselves, each one of us, a swift ninja of procrastination.

I regret to inform you that your employer knows exactly how much time you waste. They track your security card swipes, own your e-mails, record your browser history and log your keystrokes. If they give you a phone or a car with GPS, they can follow your whereabouts. They may employ human spies, spybot software or both to run productivity assessments. Your secret is out.

“Almost everybody monitors—close to 100 per cent,” says Avner Levin, a business law professor at Ryerson University and director of the school’s Privacy and Cyber Crime Institute. “It’s become a fact of corporate life. There’s hardly a discussion about it anymore.” While British Columbia, Alberta and Quebec have legislation guaranteeing some level of employee privacy, Ontario offers none. Many companies ask you to sign away every possible claim on your own data. You may have agreed to be spied on when you signed your employment contract.

An acquaintance tells this story about working at RIM: he had been doing well, or so he thought, until he was denied a raise. He was an efficient and well-liked worker who exceeded his produc­tivity targets. He expected at least a small bump to his salary, but instead he got a disciplinary note. The charge? Cyberslacking. He had been caught by company spyware, wasting time on the Internet.

He knew, of course, how the bosses spent their time. “They would always have the spyware up,” he remembers. “We’d be checking Facebook, and they’d be monitoring us. One of them liked to play World of Warcraft at the same time.”

Most companies spy on employees because they are told that they have to. Lawyers advise them that monitoring and storing e-mail is a mandatory safeguard against sexual harassment and wrongful dismissal claims. This isn’t to say that companies are on the lookout for abusive e-mails as they are sent—most aren’t. Only about 40 per cent of large companies keep spies on staff to read or analyze employee e-mail. Usually these are IT department staffers specializing in security. Depending on how nervous a firm is, spying may occupy a part of one employee’s day, or be the sole duty of an entire team.

A predictable thing happens once a company accrues a massive archive of information: they use it. Productivity consultants tantalize firms with promises of squeezing out extra work without hiring extra workers. In a tight economy, where “doing more with less” has become a managerial mantra, companies are increasingly using automated tools that interrogate their vast surveillance archives, running “regression analysis” to identify which time-sucking Web sites to block and which cyberslacking employees to fire.

SpectorSoft is one of the world’s largest purveyors of surveillance software; its products are used by more than 50,000 organizations. Founded in Florida in 1998, the company first described its products as “spyware,” then later adapted the term to “stealth” solutions. Today they’ve settled on the somewhat less menacing phrase “monitoring software.” They also offer a home version, marketed to parents who want to spy on their kids. Oprah celebrated it as one of her favourite child protection tools. SpectorSoft promises customers that their programs record “every exact detail” of employee Internet activity. It tells your boss what sites you’ve visited and for how long, and also takes screenshots that reveal exactly what you were doing on those sites. Managers (and parents) can scan through your surfing history page by page, or receive short summaries of your habits.

Websense is another popular program. It’s used by both companies and governments to block Web sites. The American Civil Liberties Union and Amnesty International have criticized it as a tool of oppressive regimes. China and Yemen have used it to filter Web sites containing forbidden keywords, such as the names of political dissenters. My former employer, the CBC, uses it. When I worked there, reporting on news stories involving gambling or sex was maddening: all access to blocked sites had to be approved one at a time by the IT department. When I was trying to make deadline on a story about Internet poker servers hosted on a Mohawk reserve in Quebec, I found it easier to just go home and work from my own computer.