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Financial Planning > UHNW Client Services > Family Office News

To Spy, Or Not To Spy

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Believe it or not, some of the most fascinating data on the odious underbelly of human behavior can be found on late night television–wedged between sleazy infomercials hosted by long-forgotten celebrities and sitcom reruns featuring celebrities we’d like to forget.

I’m talking in particular about the television show “Cheaters,” which has a rather engaging hook, especially if you’re titillated by illicit human behavior–the kind that sells tabloids to the tune of billions of dollars a year. On each episode of this “reality” show, someone suspects his or her wife/husband/boyfriend/girlfriend of infidelity, and the aggrieved party wants the show’s private investigators to get the dirt.

Eager to accommodate, the “Cheaters” crew surreptitiously follows the suspected cheater and records their illicit activities. Then the complainant gets to view the video evidence before the show’s finale–an on-camera confrontation of the cheater (often with the “other” man or woman present to absorb the shame, embarrassment, or blows of the offended party).

Generally, the victim’s reaction is an uncomfortable mixture of sadness, anxiety, rage, physical violence and insatiable pain. Take the case of the young man who had spent years courting his fianc?e, built her a spacious new house as a surprise, and was ready to walk down the aisle with the love of his life–only to find out that she preferred practicing wrestling moves with his “best friend.” Angry as the bridegroom was, however, it was his tremendous sense of loss and grief that was so palpable in that unfortunate episode.

The point is that the truth of a situation may be more than we can handle, or more than we really ever wanted to know. Under different circumstances, maybe the errant bride-to-be would have cut short her wrestling career with some counseling, or even with the passage of time. But with the evidence memorialized on tape and presented on national television, the gravity of the situation had increased to a level where the possibility of reconciliation seemed remote at best.

Some would argue (and I would agree) that the groom was better off having found out about his fianc?e’s wandering ways before he married her. I wonder, though, if in his heart of hearts, the groom wished he had never seen that evidence.

I bring up these thoughts in light of a new product I saw advertised recently in a computer journal. The software, Spector CNE from SpectorSoft Corporation, Vero Beach, Fla., allows employers to eavesdrop on and record everything their employers do on the Internet. According to the company, employees spend an average of 75 minutes a day using office computers for non-work activities, such as looking at pornography, gambling, shopping, etc. That translates into a $300,000 annual loss for a 50-employee company, they claim.

Obviously, we want to know if employees are doing something that could hurt the company, such as accessing illicit materials, sharing company secrets, or otherwise breaking the law. But what about someone who’s just checking on his favorite baseball team, downloading a recipe for dinner, or instant messaging with a family member? Obviously, an agency or home office needs to draw a line somewhere.

On the flip side, do you, as an employee, want Big Brother looking over your shoulder every time you read a personal e-mail or log onto Must your every thought and action be in service to your employer, or is there an acknowledgement that you may actually have a life outside of work?

If we install such software–and there are often very good reasons to do so–do we really want to know everything we are going to find out? As employees, do we really want our every move and keystroke monitored? And what will the threat of constant surveillance do to employee morale?

Further, think of the potential for abuse, if for example, an IT manager or senior executive had it in for you. The temptation would certainly be great for that person to get some dirt on you, a la “Cheaters.”

My suggestion is to avoid pervasive spying, but if you believe you need such surveillance in your company, pay the $495 for a minimum 10 licenses for Spector CNE or something similar, but don’t install it. Simply announce that you have purchased it and let everyone know what its capabilities are. That alone should be sufficient to stop any really harmful activities on your office systems. This way, the temptation for abuse would be removed, although you’ll still have to deal with morale issues.

An employee’s right to privacy and an employer’s right to safeguard his company are both indisputable. If there is not an honest and sincere effort to balance these rights, however, innocent parties–as well as the cheaters–may be made to pay a very painful price.


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