'We want them to let us know about it so we can do everything within our power to stop it' - State Auditor Beth Chapman
July 31, 2004 9:45 AM   Subscribe

Meet Vernon Blake. Vernon Blake was a Systems Admin for the Alabama Department of Transportation, and it was 'well known' in his office that a certain supervisor spent far more time playing solitare on his computer than he did doing anything else. Inspired by a campaign to stop waste in Alabama government, Vernon installed a screen capture utility which took 717 screenshots (.pdf) over 7 months, documenting a clear pattern of non-work related use of the computer. The results? The supervisor was given a written repremand. Vernon Blake was fired.
posted by anastasiav (38 comments total)
christ. i should think so. what an abuse of sysadmin power.
there are better ways to handle a lazy employee than invading their privacy and abusing the power you have as (an unrelated) part of your job.
i have root access to the computers here and would never dream of doing somethng like this - it's obvious i'd be fired (no-one has warned me not to - it's just plain common sense).
(also - 7 months - what's the deal there? even if you think such abuse is reasonable, a week would surely enough. 7 months is just weird. and it's 414, according to the link, not 717).
posted by andrew cooke at 9:56 AM on July 31, 2004

Couldn't agree w/andrew more. I'd be furious with any employee who did this to anyone else in our company. This seems entirely justified.
posted by jonson at 9:58 AM on July 31, 2004

a week can be pooh-poohed as a minor aberration. personal problems at home, blah blah woof woof. seven months establishes a set pattern. entrenched theiving bureaucrats win again.
posted by quonsar at 10:02 AM on July 31, 2004

still, to essentially spy on an employee for 7 months is a little more than stupid. I bet he was surprised as hell when he got fired instead of getting a pat on the back.
posted by bob sarabia at 10:05 AM on July 31, 2004

I'm with andrew and jonson. A guy who plays computer games instead of working is lazy, tsk tsk; a guy who installs spyware to rat people out at work is an insufferable asshole. No contest.

q, are you just being contrarian? 'Cause I like contrarians, but I don't like rats.
posted by languagehat at 10:06 AM on July 31, 2004

From the article:it was clearly my responsibility as a computer system administrator “to confirm and document” such misuse

I work in a similar job and I would never dream of doing such a thing, I certainly don't see it as my responsibility. Should I expect my colleagues to spy on me? If they did I would be tempted to rip their fucking throats out - or at the very least I would throw the book at them.

The sad reality is that when you know your supervisor is a total waste of space the best thing to do is either ignore it or get another job.
posted by dodgygeezer at 10:11 AM on July 31, 2004

What if it was someone higher up than the supervisor in question who'd done the spying? Would it be OK then?

At my last job, the boss routinely recorded all of our phone calls, especially if they sounded personal. I asked an attorney in the building if this was legal, and he said it's the boss' company and phone system, he could do what he wanted. Of course, this was just a random lawyer who happened to be on the same floor as us; don't know if he had any experience in employment law or anything.
posted by Oriole Adams at 10:13 AM on July 31, 2004

He was also spying on his wife:

"Blake also testified Monday that he installed the program on two other computers in the department, that of the state Right of Way Engineer Paul Bowlin, who heads the division, and Right of Way Secretary Jana Trafford Blake. Jana Blake is married to Vernon Blake."

I'd say the asshole verdict is pretty conclusive.
posted by donovan at 10:16 AM on July 31, 2004

quonsar does have a point though - the supervisor is clearly a waste of space. In fact I used to work for a woman who was constantly playing FreeCell and hardly did a bit of work. I even had to explain to her (me a 19 year old junior, her a middle aged woman who apparently had years of relevant experience) how to work out percentages. Percentages. No, I'm not joking.

Doesn't justify the guys actions but now they have found out about him they should kick his worthless arse out the front door.
posted by dodgygeezer at 10:17 AM on July 31, 2004

If a supervisor has the authority to install spyware on a subordinate's computer, it would be OK in a legal sense (and probably within the company itself). Happens all the time, though it's certainly an obnoxious management practice -- I'd hate to work in an environment like that.
posted by rcade at 10:18 AM on July 31, 2004

He was probably also hoping to catch him wife in an extra-marital affair because he seems like that type.

I'd be severely pissed off with some asswipe for pulling this on me. But the lazy supervisor should have been tossed as well. At least's Blake's intentions were good but spying on your boss or co-worker's is a bad plan no matter the intention.
posted by fenriq at 10:22 AM on July 31, 2004

Spying? Privacy? This is not his privately owned computer. This is computer owned by the state government that the supervisor is allowed to use for work related purposes. Who exactly should be enforcing the computer usage policies there?
posted by betaray at 10:28 AM on July 31, 2004

q, are you just being contrarian? 'Cause I like contrarians, but I don't like rats.

if the shoe was on the other foot, as it often is, this would just have been another "worker productivity compliance check".

as it stands, this is probably just a case of a self-absorbed control-freak nutjob who, when caught spying on his wife and boss, ran the "taxpayer fraud" flag up the pole in a lame attempt to save his ass.

as such, he was clearly underutilized and should have been promoted to management years ago, where he could have spent his career happily spying on the workforce and getting rewarded for it.
posted by quonsar at 10:36 AM on July 31, 2004

Were there any metrics or performance goals in place here to judge the performance or productivity of this particular supervisor? As a manager, I could give a fuck whether an employee is playing Leisure Suit Larry for 6 hours a day as long as s/he is meeting his/her performance goals.
posted by psmealey at 10:58 AM on July 31, 2004

I nominate psmealey for Boss of the Year !
posted by y2karl at 11:12 AM on July 31, 2004

This is clear and unambiguous abuse of root. The guy was rightfully canned, but should also be drummed out of the corps.
posted by majick at 11:21 AM on July 31, 2004

as an unapologetic slacker, I am outraged.
posted by hackly_fracture at 11:28 AM on July 31, 2004

Were there any metrics or performance goals in place here to judge the performance or productivity of this particular supervisor?

If you look at the "letter of reprimand" it clearly states that his work ethic and production were "above reproach" As a former boss, I agree with psmealey. Not everyone can stare at spreadsheets all day and its better to focus on deliverables and how well they were done than on the micro-mechanics of someone's work pattern.

If this sysadmin guy were doing something guided by upper management then there'd be no problem here. But he just went solo and, although, yeah, they are using work computers there is still information that must be handled carefully - priviledged or confidential corporate communications, data or notes on salaries or other workplace sensitive issues.

Anyways, he absurdly was spying on not only his boss but also his own wife which further weakens his case. I agree with quonsar's assesment that this guy "when caught spying on his wife and boss, ran the "taxpayer fraud" flag up the pole in a lame attempt to save his ass."
posted by vacapinta at 11:32 AM on July 31, 2004

quonsar: or from another point of view, he could be an honest, but very naive sysdamin who tought that just because he knew how to collect some kind of proof of wrongdoings, that was enough to excuse the method used to collect it.

I guess similar cases could be found among law enforcement agents who were overzealous and broke rules
but that _really_ managed to collect compromising evidence, wasted only because they didn't follow the rules.

Anyway I guess evaluating others jobs was not his responsability, as a simple sequence of pictures doesn't necassrily imply the worker was stealing resources/time from the company , while it's certainly an interesting hint into the worker working methods.

On a tangent:
1) should the employer be allowed to spy on workers ?
2) should the worker be allowed to spy on employer ?

On preview: psmealey:
posted by elpapacito at 11:50 AM on July 31, 2004

Seems to me that this is one of those guys who had an independent axe to grind and thought this sort of amateur justification would make it all OK. In short, he sounds like a idiot "rules lawyer" (RPG players know the type).

"Hey! I'll spy on my wife and this guy who I suspect/dislike/reprimanded me and call it a 'productivity check'!"

When he didn't find what he was looking for (a affair? porn surfing?) he probably came up with this BS as the best way to do damage he could think of.

If it was some programmer playing "Quake" for 4 hours a day people would probably be saying "yeah, but man thats how he >thinks< about stuff" (and I might agree) - so the question is... was this supervisors productivity up to par? If so, then who cares how much solitaire he played?

Unless your the kind of person who just likes trying to "stick it" to "the man" all the time... in which case this sort of petty stuff probably seems like proof of something about oppression.

Theres much more going on I am sure, but firing this guy seems liek a good idea. Then have someone good come in and check the machinery cause he sounds like the kind of self important prick who would leave a account open for himself.
posted by soulhuntre at 11:51 AM on July 31, 2004

posted by mrbula at 12:15 PM on July 31, 2004

How does he play solitare for 70% of his day and not get bored? I mean, what about Hearts, Minesweeper, or Freecell?

Also, when I worked in MIS, we didn't include the games when we installed Windows on a new box. Sure, it was never going to stop the slack, but the idea was to send a message. Employees would go Programs > Accessories and not see the Games folder, and then hopefully think, "Oh, yeah, they don't allow playing games at work." I actually was under the impression that this was a fairly common practice...
posted by ChasFile at 12:32 PM on July 31, 2004

Sounds like this sysadmin was a short dicked, jack booted paranoid MCSE.
Consultant and

Much worse than a lazy boss. And did I mention he was exceedingly stupid?
posted by nofundy at 12:39 PM on July 31, 2004

I could never abide those office games like solitaire, but have discovered that nature has given us no nobler waste of work time than Metafilter. "What's that blue site you have on your screen all day, Faze?" "S'nuthin'. Mind yer own bizness."
posted by Faze at 12:51 PM on July 31, 2004

It smells fishy to me. He spied on the guy for seven months, yet he never actually "blew the whistle"; only after he was discovered did he claim that this was his purpose. He was spying on his wife, his boss, and some other guy - maybe he suspected her of some infidelity with one of their colleagues? I'm also curious about the legality of his actions.

Regarding the solitaire thing; maybe the boss was a slacker, maybe not. I often have games open for days that I don't actually spend much time on. I hate sitting in front of the computer waiting for big files to download, so I usually will do a little solitaire or backgammon then, or if I'm on the phone for more than a couple of minutes I get antsy and either pace or open a game. I've had a freecell game open since yesterday, but I think I've spent about five minutes on it.
posted by taz at 1:19 PM on July 31, 2004

It would be one thing if the people knew their computers were being monitored.

But yeah, there are a lot of asshole sysadmins who think simply becaus they have the root password, they are responsible for doing anything they want on the computer.
posted by delmoi at 1:20 PM on July 31, 2004

Assholery aside, who says the screenshots were real? Anyone with an image editor can generate a bunch of screenshots. Sounds like a great frame to me.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 1:55 PM on July 31, 2004

Sounds like this sysadmin was a short dicked, jack booted paranoid MCSE.

ROFL, I know exactly that type. One time I told a person who was asking a question about MS Access and FrontPage that "each of them are unstable, and using both of them together is likely to cause problems in the future."

The guy took the trouble of calling in the next morning and bitching to my boss that, "none of your employees should disparage any product that Microsoft has tested and released."

I just know the guy has a huge wall of MS certifications that he sits in front of and jerks off to every night.
posted by TungstenChef at 3:59 PM on July 31, 2004

I think Vernon Blake et al fail to realise that 50% (70%? 90%?) of all jobs exist solely to give people somewhere to go during the day.

Sure, we can talk about things like productivity, economic growth and the unemployment rate, but we should also recognise the very important baby-sitting role "regular jobs" play. "Underemployment" is spoken of as detrimental to the economy, but it actually provides a huge social benefit: simply by giving people something to do when they wake up -- even if it's some full-time admin job which requires (say) no more than half a morning's 100%-focussed work a week.

For most people, the answer to the question "how much time do you really need to do your job?" is a fraction of the actual time they spend at work. This may not be economically efficient, but it is a cornerstone of social stability.
posted by bright cold day at 8:16 PM on July 31, 2004

As a sometime sysadmin, I'm appalled. There's a right way and a wrong way to go about things. This, alas, brings to mind the infamous Randal Schwarz case.

The seven months' pattern I see here is a guy who spied on his boss and wife for reasons unknown (creepy at best), compromised the network (in theory; in practice probably not at all) by sending data (screenshots) offsite; installed unauthorized, improperly licensed software without following procedures (done all the time to, say, bring a server back to life before daybreak, but you know); and failed in his role as a systems administrator by thinking he was performing it through protecting the machines and not the organization.

The way to handle a boss who's a Freecell nutjob isn't spying on him. Hell, I'd be unhappy about doing this with authorization and direction for any employee. Doing it freelance is just asking for trouble down the road (a bit like an illegal search; they call that, in jurisprudence, fruit of the poisoned tree). The way to handle this is a sly proposal that network resources are being consumed by game playing and perhaps the entire network should be scanned for copies of sol.exe and freecell.exe, and delete them. That is, a proposal is placed before the laze-a-day boss that puts his personal behavior in a bad organizational light. Note that you don't actually care that this proposal gets implemented; it's just pre-emptive (and yes, this is the kind of thing that geeks -- devoted to efficiency and transparency! -- see as the worst aspect of being in business). It might be just enough to make this proposal directly (just enough to get fired, but well). But you'd have done the Right Thing the Right Way. If you're just trying to get the boss-man in hot water, the old tip to his boss from one Anon E. Mouse should do the trick. It might, again, be just enough to raise the question.

But the most ridiculous part of all this is that so much time is wasted on computer networks in so many other ways that it's hardly worth the effort. I know people (I might even be one myself) who multitask -- playing a game of Freecell while "working": with a client on the phone; or attending a meeting; or hanging around on gol-durn hold. That I played Freecell is not in dispute. That I worked duly paid hours at the same time shouldn't be. If it isn't Freecell, it's the web, or (heck) some other thing I can make up given the resources at hand. A Hammurabi game in Excel, say.

I've no sympathy for this particular Sysadmin From Hell.

Oh, and Oriole? It's the company's telephone system, or computer network. They get to monitor the entire thing at any time for any reason. There's hardly any legal question about this. Though it is obnoxious to snoop that way. I've had plenty of jobs where my phone calls were recorded somewhere in the bowels of the telecom system, and in rare cases my bosses would actually listen to them. We also had "personal" lines that weren't monitored, in which sense we were lucky and treated as professionals. But I've had to look at people's e-mail both incidentally and forensically.
posted by dhartung at 11:19 PM on July 31, 2004

I've been talking with Vernon, and I according to his version of events you are totally blowing out of proportion the "spying on the wife" thing. Here's his explanation to me about the other systems that he had installed the screen capture software on:

I am glad you asked. The first computer was my own, to see if the screen capture utility actually worked. I guess I am guilty of "spying" on myself. The second computer was installed on the computer of my wife, who worked there at that time, for a period of two days. I was testing to see if the utility would capture screenshots and send them across the network to my share folder. She was unaware I had done so, I did not tell her so that she would not be considered an accomplice. I chose her computer in case it locked it up, I knew she would come to me as system administrator. I apprized ALDOT of these other installations in the spirit of full disclosure and cooperation. I had nothing to hide, but ALDOT claimed I was monitoring the activities of another supervisor because my wife was his secretery. All of this was done months before installing on the computer of my supervisor.

The ridiculous part of this is as an admin person I already had total access to any document on any computer. The "spyware" was used to capture screenshots, something I did not have the capablity to do otherwise. This boils down to ALDOT piling on additional, baseless, nonsensical charges to bolster there weak case.

I know that was a long answer, and it is not mentioned on my website because it is inconsequential, and very confusing. Although it did cause a cascading sequence of events that caused my hearing to be delayed by months.

In his defense his website says that this was not his first course of action and it was only after months of trying to get anyone to take action that he installed the screen capture utility. His biggest mistake was that he thought that showing how much of his time his supervisor wasted might cause anyone to care.
posted by betaray at 12:51 AM on August 1, 2004

"His biggest mistake was that he thought that showing how much of his time his supervisor wasted might cause anyone to care."

Oh it did cause people to care. It caused people to realize what a insanely petty little self important freak he is.
posted by soulhuntre at 5:21 AM on August 1, 2004

Self important freaks who are not in management should put up and shut up, aparently.

As dhartung states there is a right way and a wrong way to go about these things. That the company sided against a whistleblower is hardly suprising.
posted by asok at 5:51 AM on August 1, 2004

Whistleblower?? Whistleblowing is pointing out that a company is poisoning thousands of people or a government agency is violating citizens' rights. Ratting someone out for playing solitaire on company time isn't whistleblowing, it's being an asshole. Let's keep a sense of proportion here.
posted by languagehat at 7:44 AM on August 1, 2004

Oh, and Oriole? It's the company's telephone system, or computer network. They get to monitor the entire thing at any time for any reason.

That's pretty much the essence of what the lawyer said. Sad thing in my (former) boss' case was he was totally indiscreet about it. I received a call from my rheumatologist with some test results one day, and a few days later my boss, under the guise of casual conversation, came in and asked me if I knew what anti-phospholipid antibody syndrome was.
posted by Oriole Adams at 10:22 AM on August 1, 2004

I believe the courts have decided that a company's policy has to state it will monitor electronic communication. Once it clearly states this in policy, it can pretty much monitor whatever it wants, but equally.

No policy, the company had better be careful.

Per the sys admin, anyone know what the guidelines are for the State of Alabama for sys admins? Is there a policy which they are suppose to follow - aka ROOT policy ?

I find most of this common sense, and personally hope this guy doesn't get his job back. Sadly, it was easy to fire him in a blatant breach of policy (in most locations) but the dolt manager will have to have a case built against him before he can be shifted to the unemployment doles.

I will access private information on computer systems only when it is necessary in the course of my technical duties. I will maintain and protect the confidentiality of any information to which I may have access regardless of the method by which I came into knowledge of it.
posted by fluffycreature at 10:30 AM on August 1, 2004

Um, say, have any of you noticed something odd about this purported "evidence"? The example he chooses to provide shows Solitaire minimized. Speaking only for myself, of course, I can state that I hardly ever close applications if I'm planning to use them again soon, so I don't find it at all unusual that it should be there. Certainly he does go on to provide a summary analysis -- but why doesn't he include one of those damning "in progress" screenshots, instead of this one? Why not ones showing examples of each category in which he grouped the shots? And when did he have the time to categorize 700+ screenshots?

Overall, I find the "analysis" pretty suspicious. For example, his percentages add up to 100%, but they don't necessarily represent exclusive events, at least not as he's described them.

Furthermore, we're not clear on exactly what this supervisor's duties entailed. This guy supervises a DOT office, right? I used to work in a Facilities Planning office many many moons ago -- though well into the computer age -- and I think that the roles probably had some similarity. The Supervisor's primary duties there were reading specs and answering email. Curiously, most of the "work" time identified is answering email...

Maybe this is legit. But it all looks really cooked to me.

But let's say it's all as he says it is. In general, I feel it's better to give someone a second chance. Offer an opportunity for remediation. So a written reprimand in the Supervisor's file is a perfectly appropriate response. Remember that it's going to affect his ability to get promotions or transfers, and there's a good chance he'll be reviewed and held accountable for progress.

However, if someone who requires unfettered access to facilities has demonstrated a willingness to abuse that access -- what do you do, then? As a pure safety precaution, you've got to get him out of that position. At a minimum. Who knows what the hell a self-righteous individual might be doing when you're not watching. (Especially since he goes places you can't watch...)

The open question for me is: do you fire him, or do you find another position while you review the matter? And (much as I hate this answer), that's a matter of institutional policy.
posted by lodurr at 11:15 AM on August 1, 2004

Count me in on dhartung pile on. Veron is completely clueless as a SA and should be let go. He acted in a totally unprofessional manner and shouldn't have root access to other peoples toasters let alone workstations. The thought of the potential privacy invasions alone (not only of the supervisor but also any confidential records he may have been viewing) practically make me swoon.

VERON: The ridiculous part of this is as an admin person I already had total access to any document on any computer. He still doesn't seem to understand that just because he can doesn't mean he should.

There is a lot of confidential stuff you are exposed to as a SA. You have to take a very aggressive "don't ask don't tell" stance. If your server virus scan red lights a file called Resignation04.doc you quietly clean it and then keep it to your self.

The way to handle this is a sly proposal that network resources are being consumed by game playing and perhaps the entire network should be scanned for copies of sol.exe and freecell.exe, and delete them. FYI: Windows file protection won't let you delete these files under current versions of windows. You have to uninstall them.
posted by Mitheral at 8:22 AM on August 3, 2004

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