Corporations are starting to embrace technologies used to monitor employee Internet use, with 60 percent expected to watch workers' social media use for security breaches by 2015, according to a new report from Gartner.
Less than 10 percent of companies now monitor their employees' use of Facebook, YouTube, LinkedIn and other social media sites for security breaches, although many companies monitor social media for brand management and marketing purposes, said the report, released Tuesday.
New technologies and services are enabling the growth in employee monitoring, but companies will need to closely manage their monitoring efforts for ethical and legal issues, Andrew Walls, research vice president at Gartner, wrote in the report.
Monitoring can help companies avoid security problems such as employees posting unauthorized videos of company activities, Walls wrote. However, "there are other times when accessing the information can generate serious liabilities, such as a manager reviewing an employee's Facebook profile to determine the employee's religion or sexual orientation in violation of equal employment opportunity and privacy regulations," he wrote.
Earlier this year, there were news reports that some prospective employers were asking people they interview for their Facebook passwords. That practice will "gradually fade," but companies will continue to monitor the social media conversations of employees and customers, Walls said in a press release.
Companies monitoring social media activity may face a backlash from employees, Walls wrote in the report. "Enterprise surveillance of employee activities on popular social media sites has led to disciplinary actions against employees that are often supported by the law but violate cultural expectations for free speech and personal privacy in most Western countries," he wrote.
In addition, the U.S. National Labor Relations Board, in several recent decisions, ruled against employers who fired workers for complaining on social media sites about work conditions. The agency's position is that discussing work conditions with other employees is protected by the National Labor Relations Act.
Employees should be careful about "inappropriate" work-related posts on Facebook and other social media sites, said Paul Stephens, director of policy and advocacy at the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse.
"There's no doubt that the growth of social networking has created a paradigm shift for organizational security monitoring," he said in an email. "Employees should be aware that their activities may be monitored by their employers, although the precise legal parameters for doing so will need to be developed."
Employees should make use of privacy controls on most social networking sites, Stephens said.
John Simpson, Consumer Watchdog's Privacy Project director, criticized "corporate spying" in the name of security.
"Actually much of what is discussed [in the Gartner report] is unwarranted snooping in people's personal lives," he said in an email. "There is no valid reason for it and companies that engage in such activities should be called out for their unethical activity."
A number of available products will monitor social media use by employees, and many public relations firms also will monitor social media as part of their service, Gartner said. Security organizations also are beginning to pay attention to social media, not only for internal security surveillance, but also to detect emerging threats, the analysis firm said.
"The problem lies in the ability of surveillance tools and methods to produce large volumes of irrelevant information," Walls said in a press release. "This personal information can be exposed accidentally or become the target of voyeuristic behavior by security staff."
Companies considering new monitoring programs need to make sure they are complying with the laws of every country they operate in, Walls wrote in the report. In addition, if companies want to monitor employee social media activity on employee-owned devices, they will need to get permission from the workers, Gartner said.
Security staff should get permission from the company executives before monitoring, the report added. "Surveillance is an unusual activity that requires specialized capabilities and clear authority from senior management," Walls wrote.
Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross. Grant's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.