Content filters don't just spy risqué surfing

When Brian Chastain deployed a network-tracking tool on the LAN at Stifel Nicolaus Inc., his goal was to optimize bandwidth and improve network speed.

When Brian Chastain deployed a network-tracking tool on the LAN at Stifel Nicolaus Inc., his goal was to optimize bandwidth and improve network speed. What he didn't expect to find was that the internal bottleneck was caused partly by employees' extracurricular Web surfing activities.

"We ran it for a while without telling anybody, and it was bad," said Chastain, assistant director of IT at the St. Louis brokerage firm. "Once we announced we had tested it, suddenly the IT department got all these calls from people insisting they only landed on the porno site by accident," he said.

Chastain is like many other IT managers who are trying to find ways to free up bandwidth. But corporations are also faced with figuring out how to keep the work force off the Sports Illustrated site, off the Playboy site and away from day trading during business hours.

Indeed, within the last three years, companies have realized the pitfalls of a completely wired work force. Executives fret over the possibility of sexual harassment lawsuits by disgruntled cube dwellers with a front-row view of co-workers' porn-surfing. They also grouse that many workers are paying more attention to stock portfolio management Web sites than to their actual jobs. IT managers, meanwhile, scream about traffic slowdowns inadvertently caused by Web audio and video users in the workplace.

As a result, the demand for monitoring and blocking tools to keep employees out of the Web's red-light district has steadily increased. And corporations are taking a tough stance on excessive personal Internet use on the job—a stance that includes, in many cases, letting workers know their surfing patterns are being watched.

It is, however, an issue that must be approached cautiously—perhaps with some collaboration between the IT and human resources departments. The effort must be made to thwart employee animosity that may arise from their feeling that monitoring software infringes on their right to privacy. To that end, many IT managers are letting users know that the tracking software is proving useful for bandwidth allocation management, anti-virus security and even intellectual property protection—which benefits everyone in the company.

And it is true that most corporations are not out to point fingers at wayward Web surfers. Bill Gassman, an analyst with Gartner Group Inc., in Stamford, Conn., said the three main reasons Gartner clients cite for deploying monitoring systems are "making sure employees aren't storing content that could be used to harass someone, improving worker productivity and improving network performance."

Bandwidth blues

Even executives admitting to an ongoing problem with workers visiting porn sites say the products' network management capabilities are proving vital.

"My major concern is bandwidth," Chastain said. If the firm's brokers can't get stock quotes almost instantaneously, that's a huge problem, so improving network speed was among the main reasons Stifel Nicolaus decided to buy JSB Software Technologies plc.'s SurfControl software, he said.

The software, like similar products from vendors including Elron Software Inc., Symantec Corp.'s URLabs division and Websense Inc., lets IT managers track where each employee goes on the Internet. The size of Web downloads and the use of Web audio and video can be tracked as well.

So far, the brokerage is using the tool only to get reports on where network traffic is going, not to actually block users from certain sites, Chastain said. (Blocking capabilities come in a separate package from JSB at an additional price.) But given the results of the recent unannounced test of the software, Chastain said that's likely to change.

"By this time next year, I'll bet we'll end up buying" the site-blocking add-on, which will cost about $8,000 more for the 1,000-employee company, Chastain said. That adds up to a total of $10,000 to $15,000 in software licensing fees, plus a varying yearly service charge of 10 percent to 15 percent, to deploy for 1,000 seats, he said. Similar blocking and reporting packages also fell into this price range, he said.

Shelling out this kind of money, however, is worth it to companies that need to manage bandwidth better. Bandwidth control continues to be the top function that IT managers crave, say industry analysts.

"We found that our employees weren't knowingly abusing" network resources, "but that they just didn't realize that Web audio was such a problem," said Tim Sanger, a system programmer at Minnkota Power Cooperative Inc., an electric utility in Grand Forks, N.D.

The utility's telecommunications service provider informed the company that it was running at 170 percent of network capacity on its frame relay system, Sanger said. When the utility, which employs 300 workers, started using SurfControl to block users from Web audio and video sites, it went down to 27 percent of network capacity, he said.

However, Sanger is careful not to block employees' ability to get work done.

Network traffic management tools and Internet content filters "are now becoming an application to manage employees' productivity," said John Carrington, CEO of filter maker Websense, in San Diego.

More often than not, such management now includes the concession that professionals working 10- to 12-hour days should have the right to send e-mail to their kids and to purchase groceries online, Carrington said.

"Most companies don't want to create a hostile environment," Carrington said. "I see very few companies getting to a level of micromanagement where they don't ever want people checking the sports scores on their lunch break. But there's a balance, particularly when it comes to bandwidth."

Protecting property

Other companies are thinking about how they can solve security problems by keeping an eye on Internet traffic.

Officials at film studio 20th Century Fox, in Los Angeles, are using their content blocking and filtering package, from Elron Software, to protect sensitive intellectual property.

"To have a script or a contract get out into the open prematurely could be deadly for us," said Jeff Uslan, manager of information protection at the studio. Fox is using Elron's Internet Manager and Message Inspector products to ensure that employees aren't leaking information on contract negotiations with actors by posting them to movie-buff bulletin boards or e-mailing them to third parties, Uslan said.

"Fox's approach is, we need to be proactive," he said. "Intellectual property is our business. We don't want a script we're considering to wind up on eBay."

Acknowledging that such careful scrutiny of workers' e-mail and Internet use has drawn fire from privacy advocates, the Fox executive said the company "makes it fully known to all employees that we monitor Net access and e-mail" and explains the reasons why.

But it is important to note that the policy also protects workers, Uslan said. Elron's Internet Manager "also will let us know if an employee is getting hate mail or mail bombs." In addition, the software can be configured to block workers from visiting Web sites that are likely to be sources of computer viruses, he said.

And there is one final benefit that is very real—knowing how bandwidth is used can ultimately save the company money.

"We found out that 60 percent of our bandwidth at one point was going to PointCast applications, and the Elron software identified that," Uslan said. "Instead of spending $7,000 per month for a network upgrade to handle that traffic, we set up a special PointCast server, and we solved the problem.

"If you don't have to increase your network infrastructure, that's not only money you haven't spent, but money that you can use for other things," he said.

That's even good news for folks like Chastain, who will likely invest any money saved on network upgrades into more content blocking software.