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Careful, The Boss Is Watching

Vendors tout employee monitoring tools to reduce insider threat, improve productivity

Recently, software vendor Ascentive LLC installed its new BeAware employee monitoring application on all the PCs at one of its new corporate clients. The corporation notified its employees that their Web surfing habits -- as well as their email, instant messaging, and application usage -- were now being monitored and recorded.

"Internet usage at the corporation dropped by 90 percent almost overnight," recalls Adam Schran, CEO of Ascentive. "As soon as employees knew they were being monitored, they changed their behavior."

Ascentive -- a maker of parental control software that launched its enterprise employee monitoring application yesterday -- is the latest entrant in a burgeoning arena of vendors that offer tools for tracking end-users' computer activity. Along with mostly small competitors such as StaffCop, e-Spy, and Workexaminer, Ascentive is defining a new category of tools designed to reduce insider threats and improve productivity by recording everything employees do with their computers.

"We call it 'workforce activity management,'" says Schran. "Our latest edition provides all the insight necessary to eliminate time-wasting, increase productivity, and protect private company data."

While tools for tracking employee network usage have been available for years, emerging products such as BeAware take monitoring to a whole new level. The new BeAware 6.7 lets managers track workers' activity not only on the network or in the browser, but also in email, chatrooms, applications, and shared files. And at any unannounced moment, a manager can capture an employee's screen, read it, and even record it for posterity.

Such exhaustive monitoring may seem a bit draconian to the uninitiated, but analysts and vendors all say the use of such "Big Brother" software can make a drastic impact on productivity and security. In a recent study by AOL and Salary.com, 44.7 percent of workers cited personal Internet use as their top distraction at work. A Gallup poll conducted in 2005 indicated that the average employee spends more than 75 minutes a day using office computers for non-business purposes.

Once employees know their activities are being monitored, however, their personal computer use is quickly curtailed, Schran observes. "Even if your company only increases productivity by 20 percent, that's still more of an increase than you might get with a lot of other applications."

Perhaps even more importantly, employee monitoring tools can deter workers from insider activities such as data theft or unauthorized file access, Schran adds. "If your employees are downloading files to a USB device, our software will record that action," he says. "Our data has already been used in evidentiary proceedings in court."

The threat of insider data theft -- as well as the pressures of security regulations and policies such as Sarbanes-Oxley and Gramm-Leach-Bliley -- is pushing many companies to do more surveillance of employee activities. According to a study by the American Management Association, more than three quarters of companies already monitor employees' Web activity, and more than half of companies store and review email. The majority of companies employ video surveillance at their sites, and almost 20 percent not only monitor phone calls, but record them as well.

Comprehensive surveillance of online behavior may seem distasteful to some business managers, but there are ways to do it without driving employees away, Schran reports.

"We have clients that allow their people to turn off the monitoring for 30 minutes or an hour every day, so that they can send messages to the kids or do personal stuff for a reasonable amount of time," he says. "We also have clients that don't use the real-time monitoring feature at all -- they're just recording the activity in the background, in case there's a security issue or legal issue down the road."

Interestingly, some "employee monitoring" tools are legitimized versions of notorious hacker tools, such as spyware and keyloggers, that let an observer track an end-user's activity. "I don't recommend those sorts of tools -- especially the keyloggers, which enable a manager to see an employee's passwords," Schran advised.

BeAware 6.7 is a client application that is distributed to each end station, "much like you would deploy an antivirus application," Schran says. The data from the client is reported to a central server, and managers can access that data through a secure administrative application, he says. The software is available for $89.95 per seat, with volume discounts starting at five seats.

— Tim Wilson, Site Editor, Dark Reading