Welcome to Stalag Luft 17

I have in the past bitched about the trivial and petty nature of my employers. On Wednesday, I received the following memo, which I reproduce, virtually in full, with editorial interruptions.

Date: 25/02/98 09:00
Subject: Use of Internet Email by IT staff

With immediate effect all contract staff will have their access to Internet Mail removed. This should not impact us as a group because very few of our contract staff need access to Internet Mail to effectively carry out their duties.

…neither do many permanent staff. Indeed, in the near-year I’ve had it, I don’t think I have sent one single work-related e-mail. So why the hell did they give it to me to begin with? What did they expect I was going to do? Not that I really care, because their system sucks. One message I forwarded to myself took 36 hours to get here, a pace which would have been matched by a valium-crazed slug.

Permanent staff should have been aware of the policy regarding the use of Internet Mail, although we have examples where permanent staff have clearly behaved in breach of policy. All permanent staff will receive a copy of the policy for the use of Internet Mail, with their payslips for February, which they must countersign and return to the administration team. This will be held on the files in HR. Any further breaches of the Internet Mail policy will result in disciplinary action.

Ah, yes, the famed Internet mail policy. To a large part this consists of a program which scans incoming and outgoing mail for rude words. I talked about this before. It is perhaps noteworthy that things at work have become rapidly more Stalinist since China took over Hong Kong — which might give you a clue as to who my employers actually are…

These steps would have been avoided if staff had been sensible in the use of the mail facility. If you are tempted to question this action you should be aware that over one four day period of monitoring the use of Internet Mail over 625 messages were intercepted which had inappropriate material in their content.

“Inappropriate material” — a phrase which covers a multitude of sins. What exactly do they MEAN by this, given that strong rumour has it that the list of banned words includes “Clinton”? If you’ve ever been on a securities dealing floor, you’ll know that the language used tends to be, shall we say, on the robust side. Yet I am unaware of any attempts to forbid dealers from saying “fuck” — so why is it deemed worthy of disciplinary action if I put it in an email to a friend whom I’ve known for years?

In addition there have been several examples of inappropriate material being sent to the wrong address, giving significant potential for possible offence.

Rumour also has it that part of the trigger behind this putsch, was a report in a Sunday paper on the use and abuse of email. This included a sample post with, embarrassingly, the HSBC disclaimer at the bottom. This disclaimer basically denies everything the post says, is automatically added to ALL posts originating from the company. Oops! Shot ourselves in the foot a bit there, didn’t we?

The misuse of the Internet has caused significant problems…

Oh, really? Such as what, precisely? How has the circulation of jokes about Bill Clinton, or at worst, the VERY occasional picture, threatened the survival of a company which, this very week, announced 1997 profits within an ace of five billion quid? The timing of the announcement sucked; if any people were contemplating whether to jump ship (it being annual bonus time), this will have been admirable encouragement.

…and has used up substantial amounts of disk capacity.

If that’s a problem, I think we’d quite happily pass the hat round, and raise the massive cost of 300 pounds for an 8Gb hard-disk drive. Should provide room for quite a few Clinton jokes.

Management have responded with appropriate actions to prevent repetition of this misuse. The blame for the loss of this facility lies with the individuals who contravened policy in the first place.

A policy which is vague in the extreme — we have never been told precisely what constitutes “misuse” beyond the inevitable bleatings against sending “abusive, sexist, racist or defamatory messages”. As far as I’m aware, there has been precisely NO discussion over or information on what this means — one man’s harmless joke is someone else’s racist abuse. Without such details being clearly mapped out, the policy will inevitably be breached, through sheer ignorance at the very least. The reaction is a typical over-reaction: some contractors misused it, so all pay: it’s worse than being back at school.

Attached was another piece of email from a level higher up, from which I’ll excerpt a choice part or two.

Subject: Use of Internet Email by IT staff
Date: 17/02/98 14:35

I have always been of the view that when it comes to the use of technology, IT staff should lead by example and should always work to the highest standards.

An extremely naive view, and one not rooted in reality. IT staff are inevitably the FIRST to exploit and abuse any technology. The vast majority of computer crime is not commited by hackers, but is an inside job.

Contract staff charge our company for each hour they are on-site, and we must ensure that time spent on unproductive activities is minimised.

…while we pay our permanent staff just for turning up — who cares what they do, since they get significantly less than the market rate anyway. That is the insidious implication of the above statement. But why stop with email? No phone calls! Coffee breaks! Toilet visits! Yes, in future, just supply all contractors with a large cork…

It’s all very symptomatic of the neo-Luddite approach to technology inherent here. Rather than embracing the Net, and trying to find ways in which it could be used, they seem to view it as the spawn of Satan, and the root of all evil. Never mind that phones, faxes and personal chit-chat can all be used in exactly the same way – I’ve heard far more “abusive, sexist, racist or defamatory” stuff standing at the coffee machine, than I’ve ever received through the Internet – the nasty big ogre of e-mail must be stopped.

Welcome to the 19th century, guys.