Your “Big Brother” Wants You!

Do you use your government computer to search out “inappropriate material?” If so, your colleagues in the Justice Department would like to find out who you are.

Is your “Big Brother” (the one that gives you a paycheck) peering over your shoulder? Don’t answer too quickly. You may be surprised.

Most government employees know that a government computer system can’t be used for personal business. And most federal employees have enough common sense to know that anyone who is going to search the internet for pornography doesn’t want to do it through a government computer system.

But for some, perhaps the reward of seeing those pictures crossing over the wires is just too great to pass up the opportunity for a little extra thrill during lunch or “coffee break” in the middle of the morning.

In looking through cases involving the downloading of “inappropriate material” on a government computer, there aren’t that many cases of federal employees being fired for searching out explicit sexual pictures on government time. It is unlikely that someone is going to be watching over your shoulder to see what you have been looking for on the internet anyway.

But it does happen. And, in at least some cases, the federal employee (by now, a former federal employee) admitted he knew he should not be using Uncle Sam’s computer for this purpose. (For those readers who are cynical about the federal hiring process not finding good employees, perhaps this offers a faint glimmer of hope.)

In another case, an employee from the US Census Bureau was removed for having used his government computer to view child pornography. He argued various procedural problems with the case but, even with knowledgeable and talented legal counsel, lost his job anyway, probably in part because of the nature of his transgression. (See Misuse of A Government Computer Can Get You Fired!)

No doubt, there are a number of other situations in which the employee and agency negotiated a settlement in lieu of having a public record of the transgression.

Here is free advice for any federal employee: Don’t use your government computer to view or certainly not to download pornographic pictures. Most people have enough common sense not to do it; some do it anyway.

It may be that your agency does not monitor your computer usage. Most probably don’t have the time or resources to search through voluminous records to find out which employees may be searching for “unauthorized or improper material.” But even if your agency doesn’t do that, you could have a problem if you have been using your agency’s computer equipment for this purpose.

The Department of Justice is attempting to force Google (the biggest search engine company) to release records of people who used Google software for searches. Specifically, the agents of Uncle Sam are trying to find a way to resurrect the Child Online Protection Act which was struck down by the US Supreme Court in 2004.

Your colleagues in the Justice Department want Google to provide a random sample of 1 million Web addresses and “the text of each search string entered into Google’s search engine over a one-week period (absent any information identifying the person who entered such query)”….

Google has refused to provide the information. If it is forced to provide it, any federal employee who has been using a government computer to access a Google search engine and view pornographic pictures may have a problem. Despite the caveat that the information to be released is not supposed to contain information identifying the person who entered the search query, some legal analysts presume the information to be released will contain information, such as e-mail addresses, that could lead to identifying the pornography snoopers.

Remember that you work in a public position and politics is part of your work environment. Consider the potential for publicity in these cases. It would not take a talented wordsmith to craft a headline sure to grab headlines throughout the world along the lines of “Child Pornographers Working on Your Tax Dollars”; or “Government Moves Out to Remove Child Pornographers in It’s Workforce.” A federal employee caught in this way would be a great poster child to gain support to enforce a law for tracking down child pornographers.

Anyone with computer savvy could go through a few million e-mail addresses and, in the blink of an eye, isolate any searches done using a .gov or .mil address and find out the name and location of the miscreants in no time at all.

So, if you have been using your government computer for this purpose, you may already be too late. Perhaps you won’t get caught. Perhaps the sample will not include your worrisome searches. Perhaps the government’s request for the documents will be rejected by the courts.

If so, you got away with it this time. But give it up today. Take your pills. Talk to a therapist. Walk around the block or do whatever you have to do to at least wait until you are away from the office.

You may work for “Big Brother” but he is not always going to protect you. In this case, he may want to seek you out and, if he finds you, chances are you won’t like what happens next.

About the Author

Ralph Smith has several decades of experience working with federal human resources issues. He has written extensively on a full range of human resources topics in books and newsletters and is a co-founder of two companies and several newsletters on federal human resources. Follow Ralph on Twitter: @RalphSmith47