Internet Monitoring – Good, Bad or just Ugly?

A good friend of mine works at an academic institution where she teaches literature. Her specialization revolves around romance literature. Research in that area often spans into topics that are considered to be NSFW and she’s often thwarted by internet filtering when doing research in her office. She objects to this and we shared an exchange about possible reasons for these type of restrictions. As a systems administrator, I can argue bits on both sides.

For me, intentions mean everything.
First off, monitoring and filtering meet different needs. Most appliances and applications available today can do both functions and are adjustable to allow various exceptions. I define monitoring as simply logging sites visited, the length of time spent and the amount of bandwidth used. Filtering is when a site is restricted outright or portions of the site are prevented from loading.

I agree that in an academic institution, internet filtering should be kept to a minimum on the staff network. Education institutions thrive on the fact that professional staff produce new works and having unlimited access to the internet and even access to potentially taboo or questionable material could easily be justified. Being that most university professors have private offices, the risk of offending someone who walks by is minimal.

However, general monitoring is often needed to track bandwidth usage and some light filtering may be reasonable to reduce the impact of sites infiltrated with with malware. In a location where the general public or children use the Internet, clearly more strict monitoring and filtering is necessary to block age inappropriate content and prevent abuses. In either case, there needs to be a system that allows for users to request review of websites that are blocked, as most out-of-the-box filtering systems can categorize some sites strangely.

In the classic business world, internet access gets even more slippery. I stand behind my opinion that light filtering to reduce malware and basic monitoring (for bandwidth tracking) is an important part of keeping control of IT costs. Also, I understand that it’s helpful to block obvious non-work related or NSFW sites. Unless your business has a specific need to access gambling, online games or other clearly “entertainment” sites, I don’t fault management for asking IT to limit access.

Home banking, personal email, news and some social networking sites can be a gray area. I feel that employees work more effectively if they can access some personal conveniences from the office. I can quickly handle an urgent bill or respond to a family member online and then get back on my work task, instead of having to take out of office break time to visit the bank or run another errand that could be completed online faster. Also, many corporations now have identities on social networking sites that need to be maintained.

The big disconnects start to occur when managers start looking at internet usage as a way to determine employee productivity. Using amount of time an employee is online as a sole reason for a write-up, reprimand or worse is inappropriate. If an employee is not completing their required tasks, blaming internet usage shouldn’t be necessary. There should be clear areas of suffering in that employee’s work product that can be documented.

If an employee IS completing work tasks and still has time to surf the web, either a manager should look to assign additional tasks or examine ways to utilize that employee’s efficiency methods. Controlling some of what flows from the public networks to a private network is a necessary component of good IT practices. However, when those same controls start hampering employee’s ability to work or are used as poor indicator of productivity no one is gaining anything from the information available online.

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