Spot checks just aren't good enough anymore. The tide is turning toward systematic monitoring of corporate e-mail traffic using content-monitoring software that scans for troublesome words, according to an exclusive Computerworld survey.
About 31 percent of 75 corporate e-mail managers already use monitoring software either regularly or for spot checks. Of those who don't, 21 percent plan to install it next year, according to the survey.
The reason: Users of monitoring software said they're concerned about protecting their intellectual property and guarding themselves against litigation.
"I didn't really realise how much of a problem I had until I started using [monitoring software]," said Jeff LePage, director of MIS at American Fast Freight in Kent, Washington.
LePage is using MIMEsweeper software from Kirkland, Washington-based Content Technologies to scan the content of e-mail on the company network. "Probably 30 percent of the e-mails going through our servers were not work-related," said LePage -- an infraction of the company's e-mail usage policy.
LePage said most of the problem was with joke mail, but there were also some inappropriate e-mail attachments.
The Information Protection unit at 20th Century Fox, a subsidiary of News Corp. in Los Angeles, has installed monitoring software from Burlington, Massachusetts-based Elron Software. The main concern is to make sure valuable movie ideas don't leave the company, said Jeff Uslan, manager of information protection. But he said he feels he should also protect employees from receiving hate mail and other unwanted messages.
The rising concern about what gets sent over e-mail systems was spurred by several high-profile court cases in which e-mail turned up as evidence. Most of these court cases "could have been prevented if content monitoring had been in place," said Michael Overly, an attorney at Foley & Lardner in Los Angeles.
"We are seeing an increase in the use of content-monitoring software," said Joan Feldman, president of Computer Forensics in Seattle. Her company gets called in when one party in litigation is asked to produce e-mail.
Feldman recommended a two-pronged approach: A company should know what's sent over its e-mail system and enforce length restrictions on messages.
Most e-mail monitoring software works by scanning messages for keywords. Suspect messages are either blocked, or a copy is sent to a reviewer. But the majority of the companies surveyed check e-mail only when an irregularity has been reported. And 35 percent do random checks. Those are two approaches that Overly called "incredibly ineffective."
As content-monitoring software becomes more widely available, Overly said companies could even be found negligent in court for not using it.
At American Fast Freight, a year after putting monitoring software in place, the software is now capturing only two or three inappropriate e-mails per week from the company's 330 employees -- requiring only a quick once-per-week check, LePage said.
Although the monitoring software is fairly processor-intensive and can take several months to fine-tune, LePage said, "I'm very happy with the solution we've come up with."