Managers everywhere will soon have the power to remotely look through employee e-mail boxes, search for common words and even delete employee e-mail without notification, thanks to software from MicroData Software.
The software, called Cameo, is hitting version 2.0 with its upcoming release scheduled for early September. Cameo is a rules-based system that allows managers or administrators using Microsoft Corp. Exchange 5.5 or Exchange 2000 e-mail servers to block, delete, search and automatically route e-mail, MicroData said.
Unlike other products that offer these features for incoming mail from the Internet, Cameo allows these options to be exercised on e-mail sent within the corporate network, said Paul Parisi, president and chief executive officer of MicroData. Version 1.0 of Cameo did not include internal e-mail scanning capabilities, nor did it allow for inbox scanning, he said.
Administrators are able to enter up to 200 keywords or phrases to search e-mail for, including information about the body, To:, CC:, subject and attachment fields, the company said. When a message is found by filters, the e-mail may be automatically deleted or sent to its destination, with a copy sent to a designated address or distribution list, Parisi said.
Cameo is able to perform the same search functions on e-mail that has already been received, he said. Being able to search inboxes company-wide will allow companies to find needed information or contain the spread of e-mail borne viruses, he said.
But while the software may offer some benefits, it's also bound to raise privacy concerns for employees and privacy rights advocates. Parisi takes largely a hands-off approach to these issues.
"We're not policy makers," he said. The privacy policies that should be used with the product are "whatever policies the company using the product wants to enforce," he said. Rather than setting policy, Cameo aims to provide information and control over resources, he said.
"We have some very good tools that can tell you what's going on (in your network)," Parisi said. Corporate resources need to be monitored and protected, because sending e-mail from company networks is "tantamount to you putting a message on company letterhead."
Privacy concerns can be mitigated by openness on the part of employers, by acknowledging to their employees that e-mail may be monitored, he said.
"When (employees are) using a corporate e-mail system and the (privacy) policy has been stated up front, I don't think it's an invasion of privacy."
"Any tool can be used or misused," Parisi admitted. "A corporate e-mail policy has to be fluid," balancing the needs and rights of employees and the company, he said. Just as an excessive phone bill from an office phone would be a cause for alarm, so too might be excessive e-mail use, he said.
Though also admitting that the ability to read employee's inboxes and delete messages from them is "potentially inflammatory," Parisi countered that "if you're not doing anything inappropriate, you have nothing to worry about."
Not everyone is so sure of that, however.
Though software is neutral and can be used in many ways, software does have usage tendencies, said Lee Tien, senior staff attorney at the cyber-rights groups the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF).
"We (the EFF) don't like to blame tools," Tien said. "We try to focus on how the tools are used," but as software tools become more and more widely used, it does become easier to criticize them, he said.
Though the sort of workplace surveillance tools like Cameo would allow is mostly legal, "the capability to do this kind of monitoring raises real privacy issues," he said. Whether this is troubling or not is based on the context of how the tools are used, he said.
"Just because a company has the potential to do something, doesn't mean they do," he said.
That said, tools like Cameo will likely drive an increase in what is already the fairly common practice of monitoring employee e-mail, Tien said.
"Employers have always wanted to know what their employees are doing," but cost was a barrier to that end, he said. Digital communications eliminates that barrier and makes monitoring much easier, he added.
"There is no justification for instituting a monitoring policy without giving plenty of advance notice and perhaps obtaining written consent," he said. However, an increase in monitoring, combined with widespread employee knowledge of such activity "is going to create workplaces where paranoia and suspicion are rampant," he said.
"(Giving) notice is not the be all and end all of protecting people's workplace privacy," he said.
Cameo 2.0 will ship worldwide on Sept. 4. A 10-user license costs US$179 and the price increases on a similar scale, with a 1000-user license running $2,699.