Does your company have an "acceptable use" policy covering personal use of the Internet while at work? If they do, you should read it carefully. If they don't, you might want to inquire about how the company monitors Internet use and not simply assume that they don't monitor at all. Privacy has been one of my themes (rants?) so far and the cover article of the July, 2002, issue of PC Magazine is all about computer monitoring--make that spyware--programs. After reading the article, it would appear that the question is not if your company monitors your computer use, but how.
The PC Magazine article, "Watching you watching me," is an eye opener. Whether it is a company watching its employees or a vengeful wife gathering evidence against a wayward husband, monitoring software is easy to install and will run without your being aware. The most invasive monitors capture every keystroke you make into a log file which is then emailed for analysis. Some programs log every web site visited, every email sent and all your instant messages. So if you think that instant messages are safe from your boss, think again.
At work, your employer can monitor much of what you do without any extra software at all on your PC. Every email sent to and from your company email address passes thru the company email server where every message can be, and probably is, written to a permanent log. Many companies, such as banks, are legally required to log such communications. All Internet communications from your PC at work passes thru the company's routers and firewall, where it is quite easy to run usage monitoring software that rings alarms when it finds specific web sites or key words. Many companies run such software to guard against loss of trade secrets and protect the company from law suits. Ever think what might happen when you vent your anger in a flaming email to your friend across town, if you happen to use a few of the wrong keywords when describing what you would like to happen to your boss. Of course you're not serious, but the software reading your mail doesn't know that! The world changed last September.
So you might wonder if all this is legal. According to the article, the courts have repeatedly held that a company has the right to install any software it wishes on the computers that it owns, and to monitor its employees' use of those computers. Do you have any recourse? PC Magazine tested six monitor programs and three hardware devices. None of the software was so stealthy that they could not be detected using utilities included with Windows. That's the good news. The bad news is that the very act of searching for a monitor program could be enough to bring you under closer scrutiny. Are you paranoid yet?
Has anyone from the IT Department given you a new keyboard lately? One of the hardware devices they tested was a keystroke logger built right into a keyboard. Hardware devices are usually visible in some way. Most often they look like an extension of your keyboard cable.
So what's the bottom line here? What follows is my personal opinion. Anyone who uses a company email address for personal business is a fool, especially when there are so many free alternatives that don't leave a direct footprint on your company PC. Hotmail and Yahoo are probably the best, but there are others. So even if you do not have an account with an Internet service provider (ISP), you can avoid sending personal email to the company servers. Of course, your visits to Yahoo or Hotmail can still be logged by the company, but the content of your email is less likely to be recorded by the company.
Beyond the question of letting your boss, or perhaps worse, the network administrator, read your email, there is the problem of telling everyone your new email address when you change jobs. A Yahoo or Hotmail address is permanent, so long as you keep it semi-active. An even better solution is a personal domain name. I registered my company domain name in late 1994 (I think), the same year that we set up the first DACS web site. Since first registering telemarksys.com, I've moved it from North American Internet to I84.net (now part of NetPLex) to 9NetAve (a web hosting service, now part of XO Communications) to Mags Net (easily my favorite local ISP - www.mags.net). All that time, my company email address stayed exactly what it is now: firstname.lastname@example.org. Of course, your domain doesn't need to be for a company. I registered Scheef-family.com a few months back just for fun.
Also I've opened email accounts on Yahoo and MSN to use when registering on web sites and for strictly personal stuff. This helps reduce spam on the company server.
Now, on to a lighter topic: books. Well, lighter in some ways, but getting heavier all the time in others, especially price! A representative sample of some recent book purchases weighed an average 3 ¾ pounds each! They have list prices ranging from $34.99 to $59.99, and the most recent $60 book did not even come with a CD-ROM! This is out of control! It wouldn't be so bad if these books became references that could sit on your bookshelf for years and get worn from reference. Most are obsolete in only a few months. If you look, half the books on the shelves at Borders are out of date, and they still want to charge you full price! If you're not incensed by this situation, I certainly am!
Being a tight-wad starting from my genetic makeup, I have been trying to buy books at a discount for years. My long term favorite has been the Small Computer Book Club, now called Books Online (www.computerbooksdirect.com). I've been a member of this "book a month club" for more than ten years. [Hint: after you join, call them and ask to be put on "positive reply." That way, you get only the books you actually order]. Unfortunately, they were better when they focused exclusively on technical books. Now their parent company seems more interested in selling Steven King or Danielle Steel, so I have been moving to other sources. I really liked FatBrain.com until they were bought by Barnes and Noble. Oh well . . ..
My newest favorite is www.BookPool.com. Bill Keane, leader of the Linux SIG, turned me on to this site that has the "look and feel" of the old FatBrain (hmm . . .). They currently have a 40% off sale on books from Wrox Press. This is nothing to be sneezed at.
If you don't like ordering books on the Internet, Microsoft has a deal for user group members. A recent Mindshare Monthly newsletter carried a notice of a "User Group Discount on MS Press Titles". It reads:
"All user group members are
entitled to 20% off all Microsoft Press books. To receive your
discount, place your orders by phone by calling 1-800-MSPRESS.
Give them the code MCPC to identify yourself as a user group
member and receive 20% off." Yes, it's only 20% but it's
something--and you don't have to stand in line at Borders. The
Microsoft Mindshare web site is www.microsoft. com/mindshare, and MSPress
is at www.microsoft.com/mspress.
All of these links will be active on the DACS web site and you
will find this column at www.dacs.org/dacs/presidents_ message.htm.