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Is internet misuse costing your business?

Employee abuse of the internet is sapping business productivity. According to a survey, a third of companies have been forced to discipline staff for digital delinquency including downloading pornography, sending rude emails and job hunting on company time. An American software developer found that 77% of company networks unwittingly hosted some form of Napster-like peer to peer file sharing software, which employees were using to distribute pirate music and software and that 70% of internet porn traffic occurs between 9am and 5pm. According to Personnel Today, it has become the biggest disciplinary problem for employers.

Staff misuse of the internet creates serious risks, including:

Pirating copyrighted materials, raising legal liabilities for their employer

Installing unlicensed software

Creating a hostile workplace by downloading offensive material, which besides being bad in itself, gives grounds for claims to employment tribunals.

Revealing company information or libelling other firms or individuals in emails.

Increased risk of viruses and hacker attacks.

Accidental (or deliberate) release of confidential information.

Wasted staff productivity through personal use of the internet on company time or �cyber-slacking.'

Non-business traffic, especially data-heavy video and audio, clogs network bandwidth and slows down legitimate traffic.

Hackers and viruses are real threats, but sometimes employees are the weakest link. There are two remedies available to firms trying to address this problem.

The first is technical. There are programs that restrict user access to the worldwide web. For example, it is possible to put a time lock on non-business sites or completely restrict access to porn sites. These programs, such as Microsoft's Internet Security and Acceleration Server, Websense or SurfControl also keep track of which users are visiting which sites. This accountability is both a deterrent and a vital part of the chain of evidence if disciplinary action is required. ISA Server also functions as an internet firewall, keeping outsiders away from your network, and as a proxy server which makes accessing popular websites quicker. There are also programs that similarly monitor incoming and outgoing email, such as Mimesweeper. However, if you use monitoring software, you have an obligation to warn staff that it is in place.

The other remedy is to clearly define an acceptable use policy that is properly communicated to staff and consistently enforced. This should include:

When private internet use is acceptable

What kinds of material, including email, are off-limits

What is confidential and how private information should be treated

Whether any disclaimers should be attached to outgoing email and what form they should take

Who is responsible for installing and licensing software and what software may be downloaded from the internet

A ban on sharing and downloading copyrighted material like MP3 songs

The consequences of breaching the policy

It is wise to encourage staff to consider emails to outsiders as if they were formal letters written on headed notepaper and check them accordingly. And, of course, any internet policy needs to dovetail with the company's other policies, especially in relation to equal opportunities.

Being able to use the internet at work for legitimate personal activities like shopping and research, outside work hours is a genuine benefit and implementing draconian censorship can run contrary to many firms' culture of trust. It is important to get good legal advice and find a sensible balance between risk and restriction.

Where next

See bCentral Security for general advice about information

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