Lawmakers decry Web monitoring
By Peter Hirschfeld
VERMONT PRESS BUREAU | April 22,2010
MONTPELIER – Lawmakers are balking at what one senator calls an "Orwellian" plan to monitor the Web-viewing habits of thousands of state employees.
Last week, news surfaced that the Douglas administration will spend $120,000 on Internet blocking software to prevent state workers from gaining access to inappropriate websites.
Sen. Vince Illuzzi, an Essex County Republican, said he was among the majority of lawmakers who approved the one-time expenditure in a budget-adjustment bill approved earlier this year.
"When they came in during the budget adjustment, they said they needed the money to block pornographic websites and such," Illuzzi said. "And we were fine with that."
But Illuzzi, a member of the Senate Committee on Appropriations, said he learned only recently that the "Marshall 86" software will also be used to monitor the daily Web practices of state employees.
"The launching of this program makes an assumption that every state employee needs to be watched every minute of every day while at work because they're doing something wrong," Illuzzi said Wednesday. "To implement a program of this nature suggests that they're violating employee policies and that they should basically not be trusted."
The software has already been installed at the Agency of Transportation, Department of Labor, Department of Buildings and Services, and Department of Innovation and Information, which is overseeing the project.
The installation is being done by M86, a company with offices in California, the United Kingdom and Israel. Its website bills itself as the "largest provider of Secure Web Gateways and the largest independent provider of Web and e-mail content security in the world."
Jes Kraus, head of the Vermont State Employees Association, which represents more than 7,000 state workers, called the plan an unnecessary intrusion that will hurt office morale.
"It's disturbing this administration feels the need to treat its employees like prospective criminals," Kraus said. "It's one thing to say we're going to block access to bad Web sites – nobody takes issue with that. It's quite another to say we need to monitor every keystroke. The Big Brother mentality is disturbing to most folks."
An administration official says references to Orwellian oversight are "terrifically unfair."
"Another grossly inappropriate word that I heard one legislator use was 'Nazi,'" said Caroline Earle, commissioner of Human Resources, recounting her meeting with the Senate Committee on Appropriations Wednesday morning. "… This is absolutely not an intrusion of any nature that could be remotely compared to any of that terminology."
Earle said the program is a relatively low-cost way to boost efficiency in state offices.
"State jobs are not an entitlement. State jobs are paid for by the hard-earned money of taxpayers," Earle said. "We have to make sure, as responsible managers of taxpayer dollars, that the state employee workforce is being as efficient as it can be and being as responsible as it can be with equipment bought and paid for by taxpayers."
Earle said she's surprised at the controversy given that Vermont has had an almost identical program in place since 2004. That software – called SurfControl – has been installed in a number of state agencies and departments, including the Agency of Transportation.
"We've had a limited pilot project of this nature in place since 2004," she said. "There simply has not been a lot of, or any, controversy associated with it."
Earle, who was unable to say how many state employees have been fired in recent years for inappropriate Web use, said the results at the Agency of Transportation are consistent with other government divisions that have used the software. Earle said employees are given prior notice that the software is being installed.
"No one in state government is interested in saying 'got ya' to state employees," Earle said. "We're interested in fairly laying out what the parameters are so people can keep their behaviors within those parameters."
Earle said the administration is fine with people using office equipment for personal correspondences and business, provided that activity occurs during breaks or lunch hours.
"Our policy, which has been in effect for a few years now, specifically allows state employees a reasonable usage of computers for personal reasons," Earle said. "But the primary focus of these employees during the working day should be to do the work of the state. And we're a little disappointed this has become a debate using terms such as 'Orwellian' and 'Nazi' and 'Stalin.'"
Illuzzi said he'll introduce legislation that would restrict the state's ability to monitor its own work force.
"No one has said there's an epidemic of state employees abusing access to the Internet. This is not a pervasive problem," Illuzzi said. "But this creates the impression this is an epidemic and we need to crush this activity, when in fact it's sporadic and our state employees are the biggest asset we have as a government."