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Companies Can See Whatever They Want

Posted August. 02, 2005 03:02,   


A Mr. Lee (29) who works at a Korean accounting company recently received a phone call from his company’s computing department some one hour after he copied a file related to his company’s tax payment from the company’s central computer to his laptop. The voice asked, and almost commanded, “Do not move from where you are, turn on your laptop and do what I tell you to do.” He installed a program as he was told. The mouse cursor on the screen moved by itself and the file he copied was deleted.

Mr. Lee said, “I was shocked to find the company knows whatever I do with my laptop.” An increasing number of companies watch over their employees’ cyber lives, from e-mails and messenger dialogues to file copies and even the websites they visit. While some argue that the monitoring is inevitable in order to protect confidential information, others say it is invasion of privacy.

How Much Do Companies Observe Workers? -

According to a survey in 2003 on 207 Korean companies, 42 percent answered they keep track of the websites that employees access, and 16 percent store and read e-mails workers send or receive. Those email records remain after they are deleted from individual computers. The percentage has probably increased recently.

Corporations’ rationale for their monitoring is to protect their business secrets. Secret leaks are usually caused not by outside spies but by insiders, they believe.

Corporations select and open e-mails that contain certain terms, or regulate emails that have large attached files, since it is impossible to read every one of them.

Every E-mail or Messenger Dialogue Up for Grabs-

MSN Korea, Microsoft’s portal site, said on August 1 that dialogue through its messenger programs or other messenger programs can be intercepted by outsiders.

What messenger programs do is sending text files through the Internet. As one can steal a letter from a mailbox and read it, the same can be done to the data of a private conversation.

E-mail works in a similar way as messengers. Companies can read whatever data is transferred through their intranet if they want.

Programs to avoid censorship are available on the Internet. SIMP is one of those programs. It encodes what was said on messenger programs so that it cannot be read by others.

MSN and NateOn, Korea’s two biggest messenger service providers, are currently considering adding an encoding function to their messenger programs to meet user demand.

Privacy Invaded?-

In the U.S., censorship in cyberspace by companies is taken for granted. In all states except for Delaware and Connecticut, companies are not even required to notify their surveillance efforts to employees.

Chairman Jeong Young-tae of e-Cabin, an e-mail monitoring company, said, “E-mail observation is not a kind of surveillance, but a minimum measure taken by companies for survival.”

However, many argue that it is invasion of privacy.

A lawyer working for the Korean Federation of Trade Unions said, “It is enough for companies to keep an eye on those who handle secret information such as program developers or executive managers.”

The Korean judicial community generally agrees that companies’ censorship in cyberspace has no legal problem if they get consent from employees in advance.

Lawyer Yim Seong-woo who works at the law firm Gwangjang said, “As information technology becomes more sophisticated, the collision of convenience and privacy will surface in more areas,” adding, “Although Korea is one of the IT industry’s leaders, discussions on privacy protection are still in their incipient stage.”

Suk-Min Hong Sang-Hoon Kim smhong@donga.com sanhkim@donga.com