NEW YORK (AP) _ More than a third of the U.S. work force with access to the Internet have their e-mail messages and Web surfing regularly monitored by their employers, according to a new study.
Andrew Schulman, the study's chief researcher, attributes the prevalence of workplace surveillance to its ease and low cost _ an average of $5.25 per monitored employee each year using commercial software packages.
``There are legitimate reasons to be worried about what employees are doing, but those legitimate reasons could also lead you to put cameras everywhere and record every phone conversation,'' Schulman said Monday. ``But those things aren't done for the most part.''
The study was conducted by the Workplace Surveillance Project of the Privacy Foundation, a research group based at the University of Denver.
Hundreds of employees have been fired in recent years for using their company Internet systems inappropriately.
Last year, for example, The Dow Chemical Co. fired 50 workers and disciplined another 200 for e-mailing pornography and violent images from company computers. Earlier, Xerox Corp. fired 40 workers for spending work time at porn and shopping sites.
Although courts have ruled that employers have some rights to monitor use of their equipment, Schulman said companies sometimes go too far.
``The argument of, `Well, it's our computer. It's our office' doesn't really work,'' Schulman said. ``The bathrooms belong to them, too.''
He said companies need to think through why they monitor and should make better efforts at warning employees ahead of time. Too often, he said, the warnings are buried in an employee handbook.
The Privacy Foundation study estimates 14 million employees are under continuous surveillance using commercially available software. It doesn't count any monitoring using customized software or procedures. According to Nielsen/NetRatings, the total online work force in the United States is about 40 million.
Researchers took the number of users reported by some of the software companies and adjusted the figures to account for purchasers who turn off logging features or use them for schools. They then matched those numbers with company revenues to come up with a cost-per-user figure.
For companies that did not report the number of users, the foundation estimated the number using the cost-per-user figure and publicly available revenue figures.
At San Diego-based Websense Inc., one of the leading makers of software that permits employee monitoring, chief executive John Carrington disputed the need for worry.
He said companies, for the most part, buy the product not to monitor individual employees but to determine trends on Internet usage. And the software, he said, can be used for much more, including blocking adult and gambling sites without logging surfing habits.