Is the risque picture search a risky business?

Summary:News.com's Ed Frauenheim is the most recent to open that perennial can of worms involving digital pornography in the workplace.

News.com's Ed Frauenheim is the most recent to open that perennial can of worms involving digital pornography in the workplace.  Frauenheim's story begins with the warning "Beware, those of you who sometimes sneak off in cyberspace to look at naughty pictures."  The story goes on to talk about various trends involving employers who monitor digital asset usage in search of porn afficianados.  Says the story, ninety percent of the largest U.S. companies have procedures in place in case inappropriate or illicit images are discovered in the work place, 50 percent have had to use these procedures for incidents in the past year, and 44 percent of cases resulted in a dismissal from the company.  

Indeed, these days, behind-the-firewall consumers of pornography represent several threats to corporations.  The worst of these is probably the introduction of malware.  Depending on what software is being used and how pornographic material is being retrieved, digital pornography usage can result in a variety of unintended exploitations of corporate assets.  There are legal risks that go with behind-the-firewall usage of pornography as well.  Talk to any lawyer that specializes in sexual harassment or violence in the workplace and they'll tell you that any routine display or distribution of pornography can fall within the realm of sexual harassment -- one that can put the company at significant legal risk if it's not addressed immediately upon discovery. 

Third on the list is probably the impact on productivity.  Every on-the-job minute that an employee is spending on pornography is one less minute that that employee is performing his or her job (although I'm in favor of measuring employees on what they get done, not what they don't).  To a lesser extent, consumption of storage might be an issue.  But with significant amounts of storage (hundreds of local gigabytes) coming at virtually no cost to end users, it's doubtful that most behind-the-firewall use of pornography is hitting the storage budget (maybe the networking budget though, depending on how much bandwidth it's consuming and what legitimate applications are competing for that bandwidth). 

So, it should come as no suprise that enterprises are looking to keep a lid on certain abuses of their digital assets.  But could such clamp downs be a double-edged sword? Last year, I wrote the story of "Jack" -- an immigrant whose life took a significant turn for the worse when child pornography turned up on his system. He was fired from his job, sent to jail, permanently saddled with a sex offender's record, and almost deported. 

As I said in that story, I can't attest to his innocence.  But, one thing I can say for sure is that porn can get onto any system in a variety of ways without the end user knowing about it.  When a business discovers such material, lives literally hang in the balance of how it responds.  I wonder how many of those cases that resulted in dismissal (44 percent is nearly half of all the cases) might have been false positives.  Ferreting porn out of your digital assets is one thing.  Taking that next step is an entirely different story.

Topics: Security

About

David Berlind was fomerly the executive editor of ZDNet. David holds a BBA in Computer Information Systems. Prior to becoming a tech journalist in 1991, David was an IT manager.

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