e-Mail: to snoop or not to snoop?

An article in the Sydney Morning Herald claims that 40% of IT administrators snoop on their company bosses’ e-Mails. As one of the commenters underneath the article succinctly puts it regarding that statistic: ‘crap’. I’d have to agree — 40% is way too low.

In a previous life working for a large US multinational word got round my office one day that the new CEO’s e-Mail was wide open for all to see. Sure enough, I proxied in and the unfortunate boss — fresh from a stint as CIO of a major tech firm — had his technological pants down in front of the entire office. What did I find out? Not much really, although the number of e-Mails from friends and acquaintances congratulating him on his new posting and in the same breath asking him to use his newly-found corporate might to consider buying out their lame-ass startups was a real eye-opener. The breach was shut down pretty quickly but from then on, whenever a new exec joined the company we’d all automatically proxy in within a day or two of their start date and sure enough, full public access was often there. I learnt that a maverick former employee of the company who was being prosecuted for intellectual copyright infringment had countered with a claim of sexual harassment against a senior female exec. If you’d ever seen a picture of this guy you’d know just how ridiculous this was. We also saw that on a regular basis the senior HR guys were being notified about breaches of the e-Mail usage policy (basically employees forwarding obscene images to each other) . . . talk about irony. It got to the stage where we could tell how influential the IT guys thought a new exec was going to be by whether they indulged in their little e-Mail chicanery or not. I don’t know who in the e-Mail admin team was responsible but eventually it petered out and our faucet of information was squeezed tight.

Do I feel guilty about doing this? A little to be honest. I never used the information for personal gain although with a bit more knowledge about M & A I suspect I could have. But from what I know about IT staff I reckon whoever was opening up the accounts was probably doing it simply because they could and not for financial gain. IT support staff thrive on knowledge — knowing stuff that others don’t isn’t just cool it’s also directly related to your own marketability in the job space. If everyone knew how to install and fix e-Mail then there’s no point in having support staff right? A manager once remarked to me how easy it was to manage IT guys ; to reward them for a job well done they would simply send them on a training course or give ’em some techie book vouchers thereby ensuring they’d have the edge on their colleagues in the skills department. Money was never a factor he  said almost in disbelief.

This desire for one-upmanship gets to the heart of it. And if you’ve ever had a patronising support guy at your desk tell you not to bother your little head and that what he was doing was “on a need-to-know basis” then you’ll know exactly what I mean.

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