The Big Brother Myth

It's ludicrous to compare the monitoring of employees' Internet use to the oppressive control of George Orwell's Big Brother.

"Big Brother" is commonly understood to mean an omnipresent, seemingly benevolent figure representing the oppressive control over individual lives exerted by an authoritarian government. The phrase has its roots in George Orwells 1949 novel "1984." In 2004, the term has been misappropriated to describe everything from legitimate crime fighting to surveillance cameras to corporate e-mail and network-usage monitoring.

Companies providing Internet access to employees must ensure that workers Internet use is conducive to business. They must prevent employees from wasting company time on things such as pornography and music downloading. This is not the oppressive control of Orwells Big Brother.

In "1984," the government oppresses its citizens via mind and information control. This could never happen in the United States. U.S. government agencies are widely decentralized and isolated.

Just getting the networks in a single federal agency unified is daunting; getting all the agencies to have a single, unified data-sharing mechanism is a pipe dream. Look at it this way: The U.S. Department of Defense possesses more networks than some countries possess computers.

The majority of business executives do not care what employees do on their own time, but the execs do not want the personal interests of employees to disrupt the efficacy of corporate networks—or create legal problems for their businesses. Companies must perform due diligence to avoid lawsuits resulting from the inappropriate use of the Internet by their workers.

Thus, companies use monitoring and forensics software to analyze Internet usage and user behavior. Some people object to this, claiming that corporate America is turning into Big Brother, thanks to control of access, Web filtering and Web analysis software. But it is ludicrous to compare a totalitarian regime—under which ideas or actions are punished in cruel and deadly fashion—with a company that is seeking only to use its IT assets effectively.

Companies that have a great deal of money invested in IS possess the right to ensure that their computer systems are employed for the proper purposes. The protection of corporate computing is an obligation of sound management and not an emulation of Big Brother.

In "1984," Orwell portrayed a totalitarian government that exploited mind and information control to suppress freedom. When businesses employ access control or Web analysis tools, they are simply seeking to ensure that corporate IT is used for business purposes.

Ben Rothke, CISSP, is a New York-based security consultant with ThruPoint Inc. McGraw-Hill has just published his book "Computer Security: 20 Things Every Employee Should Know." He can be reached at Free Spectrum is a forum for the IT community. Send submissions to