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Don’t Google 'knockers' on the boss’s laptop (even at home)

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A Federal public servant in Australia's Department of Resources, Energy and Tourism has learned the hard way that a policy against using departmental computers to access pornography goes home with the laptop.

In a ruling handed down on Monday (January 31), the Federal Court of Australia has dismissed the 25-year public servant’s appeal against his dismissal for viewing pornography on his employer’s laptop, even though it only took place at home.

The pornography seems to have been mild enough. In a detail that has titillated headline-writers at the Sydney Morning Herald, the search term that ended the public servant’s career was “knockers”.

However, according to the Federal Court judgment, the material viewed counted as pornography and as such, violated the department’s policy. This policy states:

Employees are prohibited from using Departmental ICT facilities to deliberately access, display, download, distribute, copy or store:

  • pirated software and/or material;
  • racist material; • pornography; or
  • links to such material.

Justice Nye Perram found that even at home, since the laptop belonged to the department, the policy still applied.

Titillating, but not unfair

To assess the decision, I need to get behind the tabloid-ish titillation that even a broadsheet enjoys using the word “knockers” in a headline.

The judgment isn’t much about pornography. That word appears only about 30 times in a judgment running to nearly 9,000 words. What’s at stake here was whether the Department that owned the laptop could apply a policy that went home with the employee if he took the laptop home.

Justice Perram has said “yes”.

The department ran a logging and monitoring environment (Spector 360) specifically to ensure that its computers were used in line with its policies, even away from the office. Justice Perren notes that as well as Web browsing, all emails, attachments, and instant messages are also recorded by Spector 360, which filed the 30-second snapshots with servers in the xepartment. It was this software that flagged keywords such as “knockers” and landed the staffer in hot water.

The judgment also points out that the employee was a member of the department’s IT sub-committee, which in the judge’s mind ruled out the idea that the dismissal might be unfair if the employee didn’t know or understand the extent of the logging.

The decision – and the stories surrounding it – are probably not welcome among those vendors selling monitoring and logging software. Those vendors have been at pains to portray themselves as benign, since their role is to protect business networks against being compromised by careless employees, to protect employers against cyber-slacking, and to make sure that unpleasant stories such as sexual harassment cases don’t land on employers because of what pops up on an employee’s screen in front of others.

The question now going around the internet is whether or not the logging was fair.

While it’s easy and glib to invoke the “privacy of his own home” in defense of the unlucky public servant, the problem is as Justice Perren noted: he knew about the monitoring, he knew about the policy, and he knew that the laptop belonged to his employer.

Any member of the Senior Executive Service – the Sir Humphrey Appleby strata of Australian public service – has at least the spare change to buy a personal laptop for his or her own use. And this doesn’t just include searching for knockers: if anyone sends a private email they don’t want copied to the boss, it makes sense to separate the personal machine from the professional. It’s probably also prudent to keep other personal logins – such as bank accounts and credit cards – away from a monitored and logged office computer.

One other question remains. According to Spector 360, the software does more than just monitor and report activity – it can also block websites. If “knockers” are so offensive that they fall outside the department’s porn rules, and the laptop belongs to the department, why not just block the results?

It would have saved everybody a lot of time and money. ®

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