SMB Security: Do You Need Employee-Monitoring Software?

by Ronald Pacchiano

Whether you need to improve employee productivity, protect your small business network or reduce your business liability, monitoring software can help.

Have you ever wondered if your employees are being as productive as they could be? According to IT research firm Gartner, non-work-related Internet surfing results in an estimated 40 percent productivity loss each year for American businesses.

That's not hard to believe. Between real-time news feeds, instant messaging, social networks, online gaming and video websites like Hulu and Netflix; it's amazing that your staff accomplishes anything at all.

Loss of productivity is only one part of the problem. Unrestricted Internet access allows employees to download illegal or copyrighted content from peer-to-peer networks, abuse the company email system or simply waste valuable time surfing inappropriate websites.

The legal ramifications of these actions can be quite damaging to any business, particularly in the case of an employee found viewing pornography. In the U.S., more than 15,000 sexual harassment cases are filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission each year due to illicit material found in the workplace.

Perhaps more disturbing, statistics say that 70-80 percent of all computer crimes -- many of which involve financial fraud or intellectual property theft -- are committed by employees against their own employers..

How can you protect your small business from these potential pitfalls? An employee-monitoring technology lets you take charge of how your employees use the Internet. You can eliminate excessive, non-business Internet activity, which simultaneously increases productivity and virtually eliminates the legal liability. Additionally, observing your employees ongoing performance will provide you with valuable information about how to improve their effectiveness on the job.

There are a wide variety of employee-monitoring options available to you; each varies in cost and complexity. You can monitor all employees or just keep an eye on new or potentially problematic employees. The specific tasks you can monitor will vary depending on the program you choose. However, most employee-monitoring packages are capable of performing these functions:

Internet Monitoring and Filtering

With Internet monitoring you can ascertain which employees spend the most time browsing the Internet, identify websites they visit and evaluate how much time they spend on each site. Therefore, if Susan in accounting is spending her time attending to her virtual farm on Facebook as opposed to processing invoices, you'll know it. Internet filtering will remedy the problem, because you can now control your employee's access to the Internet and specify what sites she can visit and at what time of day.

File and Document Logging

File and document logging helps to prevent data lost by maintaining a record of all the files accessed on an employee's computer. This record can display which documents have been viewed and show when or where a file was transferred or printed. Many of these programs can even block files from being transferred to removable media, such as DVD and USB Flash drives. Some can even send you an alert when a removable device has been connected to an employee's PC.

EMail and Instant Messaging Logging

Make sure that confidential company secrets aren't being shared with unauthorized personal by recording all of the email an employee sends or receives. This can also be configured to record only emails containing specific keywords. This record can also be used to capture instant messages from applications like AIM, MIRC and Yahoo Messenger.

Application Monitoring and Filtering

Application monitoring lets you discover which applications your employees use and how much time they spend on them. This helps to ensure that Joe in marketing is working on his presentation and not updating his iTunes playlist. If it turns out that Joe is spending too much time on iTunes, application filtering lets you prevent it from even running on his system. Taken a step further, you can prevent all applications; except for those Joe needs to perform his job, from launching.

Screenshot and Keystroke Logging

This feature can typically be configured to capture every keystroke entered on the employee's computer or it can be configured to start logging only when specific keywords are detected. Most monitoring programs also give you the option of taking screenshots of the employee's PC; either at set intervals or whenever the key logger is activated, thus providing you with a visual record of what transpired.

Centralized Real-time Monitoring, Deployment and Administration

You need to install and administer many of these packages from the PC being monitored. For small environments with only a handful of PCs, this is an acceptable solution. However, for larger networks, with 10 or more systems, there are advanced computer monitoring solutions you can deploy and manage from a single PC. They cost more, but are far more convenient.

Employee-Monitoring Software Options

Now that you know what an employee-monitoring program can do, you need to start evaluating different packages in order to determine the one best suited to your company's needs.

Two of the more well-known packages come from Spytech Software and Design. The first is Spytech SpyAgent. This software supports all of the features listed above, along with numerous others. Prices range from $69.95 to $99.95, and the company offers discounts on multiple licenses.

Spytech NetVizor is network monitoring software that invisibly monitors your entire network from one central location, making it an ideal solution for larger office environments. NetVizor starts at $295 for a five-system license. Both of these programs offer an online demo so you can evaluate their monitoring capabilities.

Another application to consider is Awosoft's Imonitor Employee Activity Monitor. Imonitor is a powerful monitoring solution with tons of features and configuration options. It even lets you enable/disable USB drives, card slots and CD/DVD-ROM drives, which further minimizes the chances of any unauthorized data removal.

The final utility Work Examiner, performs many of the features listed above, but it doesn't do screen captures, intercept keystrokes, collect the contents of instant messages or generally collect any personal information about the employee. Because of this, it doesn't behave like traditional spyware, and as such, it might work better with your anti-virus and anti-malware software. You can evaluate each of these software applications by trying the downloadable free trial versions.

Here's a caveat. Since these applications are essentially spyware, most antivirus or anti-malware applications might detect its presence on a computer. In order for the monitoring software to do its job, you'll have to create exclusions that will allow the monitoring software to run unimpeded. This could take a bit of work to resolve, so we strongly recommend that you thoroughly test the application on non-production PCs.

We urge you to consult with a lawyer before rolling out any type of employee-monitoring solution. Laws regarding computer monitoring vary and with any endeavor such as this, privacy issues will be a concern. So it's best not to make any assumptions about your rights or those of your employees.

Also, create an Acceptable Use Policy (AUP) and distribute it to all your employees. The document should outline precisely what your employees can and cannot do with company resources They should be made aware that their computers and Internet activity are being monitored, and that violation of these policies can carry serve consequences.

Ronald V. Pacchiano is a systems integrator and technology specialist with expertise in Windows server management, desktop support and network administration. He is also an accomplished technology journalist, writing product reviews and feature stories for both print and web-based publications.

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This article was originally published on Monday Jul 12th 2010
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