Monitoring the asylum

After finding out that their Internet usage was being monitored by the Administrative Office of the Courts, the judges in the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco demanded an end to the snooping. But now the Judicial Conference of the United States is thinking about requiring Internet monitoring of all federal judiciary employees, judges included.

In response, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) released an Action Alert by e-mail on Sept. 4 saying:"The Electronic Frontier Foundation believes that if we can't trust judicial employees to use computers appropriately, then we shouldn't trust them to administer our courts. The intrusive monitoring of e-mail, Internet usage, case-related materials and even private correspondence - perhaps to be conducted by an outside commercial company - raises serious privacy issues."

While I admire the EFF, this is ridiculous. If you work for a corporation and management mandates monitoring and filtering of your Web browsing and e-mail exchanges, tough luck, the company has every right to do so.

The corporation might be concerned about bandwidth abuse, access and distribution of illegal or prurient content that the company could be liable for, distribution of pirated materials or a score of other issues. The action might also be to ensure that viruses and Trojan horses aren't acquired through e-mail and that users don't download unknown and unapproved software.

Despite what many people assume to be rampant Big Brotherism, the object is usually not about "spying" on employees - it's about deflecting problems, saving money or preventing legal tribulations.

There is no doubt that some organizations have abused the trust of their employees by, for example, misusing e-mail content, and there is certainly the risk that company management with a political or religious agenda could easily place inappropriate blocks on e-mail and Web content. Fortunately such companies are few and far between.

Now, in this case, the management is the Judicial Conference of the United States. Folks, this is not North Fork Hay and Grain or Phil's Furniture World. These are serious dudes and public servants to boot. They don't decide anything without orders signed in triplicate, sent in, sent back, queried, lost, found, subjected to public inquiry, lost again and finally buried in soft peat and recycled as firelighters (apologies to Douglas Adams).

Thus we can conclude that this was most likely a serious decision - a strategic decision. Yet the employees - the judges - ordered a one-week shutdown of the monitoring! Would I be going too far to suggest that the lunatics have taken over the asylum? What makes the judges so special that they shouldn't be monitored?

Don't tell me that the judges are more ethical or moral than the rest of us (remember the Clarence Thomas case?). Why should they care if their bosses are keeping tabs on which sites they visit ("Your honor, you visited Persian Kitty 38 times last month" - "Research, my boy . . . now, where are my golf clubs"). And if the judges' e-mail messages are private and so confidential why aren't they using some kind of encryption system?

Now if, as the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco suggests, monitoring is "possibly illegal," then I'd love to know why corporate monitoring hasn't been challenged.

What worries me is that the judges seem to object to being treated as regular folks. When it comes down to it, if their concern is disclosure of privileged case information then surely the judges can negotiate with their bosses and agree how information about their browsing and e-mail use will be acquired, handled, analyzed and stored. Indeed, the judges should be demanding that funding and research be allocated for securing their computer use.

The EFF is suffering from knee-jerk liberalism. Our judges need to be watched like everyone else.

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