Beware of the E-Mail Joke Police

Kiss that joke list goodbye: incoming funnies and other nonwork e-mails can now be blocked by your employer.

Kiss that joke list goodbye: incoming funnies and other nonwork e-mails can now be blocked by your employer.

A new e-mail monitoring system from SurfControl that is set for release in mid-April is able to watch incoming e-mail and block commonly reported jokes, hoaxes, spam and image attachments, as well as stop sensitive outgoing data.

The software scans incoming and outgoing messages, and can bar e-mail that contains keywords or phrases that a company selects. At that point, an Internet administrator or human resources manager with appropriate access rights can review the message and send it on, delete it or take other action.

"The goal is to effectively manage the flow of information," said Kelly Haggerty, SurfControls vice president of product management. "E-mail is such a free-flowing mechanism, its easy for confidential information to slip out."

For Chuck Overgaard, who runs the messaging servers at BI, a marketing consulting company in Minneapolis, the issue of filtering out incoming e-mail that isnt business-related is an operational one. Since his job is to make sure the servers stay up and running, Overgaard sees filtering e-mail as a way to reduce the strain on the system.

"E-mail is the property of the company, and we maintain the right to stop anything," Overgaard said. "I dont see it as being intrusive, especially when youre trying to manage excessive loads on the e-mail servers."

Privacy advocates blanch in horror at such seemingly invasive electronic monitoring tools. But spying on employee e-mail is perfectly legal in the U.S. — in fact, its becoming more popular among corporations. The American Management Association found that 38 percent of 2,100 companies that it surveyed last year monitor employee e-mail in some way, compared with 27 percent in 1999.

Consequently, the corporate spyware market is set to explode: Sales of e-mail scanning software will grow from $52 million in 1999 to $873 million in 2004, according to research firm IDC. SurfControls SuperScout e-mail filter, which will cost $1,700 for a 50-user license, will compete with similar offerings from Baltimore Technologies and Elron Software.