Ethical Implications of Internet Monitoring: A Comparative Study

Frances S. Grodzinsky, Stephen Lilley and Andra Gumbus


As Internet use pervades our personal and professional lives, organizations have become increasingly concerned about employee use of the Internet for personal reasons while at work. Managers have responded by restricting or limiting Internet use, and monitoring Internet and email communication. While there may be legitimate organizational functions such as performance appraisal and/or security that are served by restricted use and monitoring, poorly designed and communicated practices can have negative effects on morale and productivity. Monitoring often erodes trust and may be considered an invasion of privacy.

The research question addressed in this study is whether social context plays a role in subjects’ assessment of restricted use and surveillance. More specifically, we address whether students accept or reject surveillance with the same frequency for university and work settings. What principles do they call upon when justifying or condemning surveillance in these two environments? By comparing students’ thinking regarding college and the workplace, we have teased out important variables of our subjects’ ethical reasoning regarding restricted use and monitoring.

The study is relevant for policy and theory. From a practical and policy making perspective the study can aid university administrators in considering surveillance. Should they follow the model from the business world? This study provides the student perspective and can give valuable insight to policy makers from the student point of view. With regard to theory, there may be a tendency to conceptualize computer surveillance comprehensively. This study suggests that for users, the social context matters when accepting or rejecting surveillance.

A total of 185 students participated in the survey that was used to assess the main hypothesis that attitudes and reported usage of the Internet differed in two social contexts: the university and the workplace. The participants included 160 undergraduates from an American university campus and 25 graduate students from its Luxembourg campus. Approximately one quarter of the respondents were drawn from computer science courses and three quarters from business courses. In the first section of the questionnaire, students were instructed to reflect and report on their attitudes toward restricted use of the Internet, and toward monitoring their computer usage in the university setting. The same or similar questions and statements were repeated in the second section of the questionnaire, but respondents were instructed to answer in regard to the workplace. The main hypothesis was assessed item by item by comparing the responses in the first section (university context) with those in the second section (work context). In addition, respondents received a total score for all the items pertaining to external control (e.g., monitoring, restricting use) and internal (self) control (e.g., not visiting pornography sites, not using a computer for illegal activity). In each section, the hypothesis was also tested more comprehensively by comparing the totals from the corresponding university and work indices.

The questionnaire consisted of 26 closed-ended questions and 6 open-ended questions. The closed-ended questions either utilized a checking system (for example: Check all that apply to you: ____I do not use work property for illegal activities) or a yes-no response set (for example: Is monitoring Internet usage unethical? Yes ____ No ____). The open-ended questions prompted respondents to provide a rationale for a particular stand by means of a follow-up to the yes-no selection: If yes, WHY? If no, WHY NOT?

The results of the survey supported the hypothesis that attitudes and reported usage of the Internet differed in two social contexts: the university and the workplace. The emergence of important ethical issues of autonomy, privacy and property that appeared in respondents’ answers confirmed this view. Our analysis will examine how these ethical issues were used as a rationale that explained why monitoring in the workplace was considered more acceptable than at the university. We conclude by discussing the ethical and policy implications for both business and education.


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