State Workers Cruise Net on the Job

By AVIVA L. BRANDT

Associated Press Writer

YAKIMA, Wash. (AP) _ State employees are using Internet access at work to sell their cars, look for new jobs and schmooze about seagull droppings, hangovers, slacking off and more.

One-man Internet watchdog Dave Wickham was incensed when he realized an Internet advertisement for fishing flies came from a Department of Social and Health Services account.

"I figure if it's a private employer, that's their business and who cares. But where it's state government, it seems like it's our problem," said Wickham, 44, an electrician in Cle Elum _ a town about 40 miles north of here and 75 miles northeast of Olympia, the state capital where virtually all the recreational Internet use by state workers originated.

"Plus, you know, you feel like a state employee should somehow be representative of you and where they're out trolling on the 'Net for dates, it kind of reflects on the state and the way it's run."

Wickham made it his business to track the abuses using a service called Deja News, which has archives of most Internet postings since March 1995. By mid-August, there were 2,067 from Washington state workers posted to hundreds of different newsgroups, according to a Deja News search.

Some were legitimate, seeking help with computer programs or publicizing government decisions. There were no Washington state workers posting personal ads at the better-known sites.

But many of the postings clearly had nothing to do with work.

State officials, alerted to the problem, say that will change.

Mary Riveland, head of the state Department of Ecology was taken aback to learn her employees were using state Internet accounts to discuss topics ranging from the Grateful Dead to hunting-dog breeding.

"I think there were probably similar concerns we had when cell phones became a new tool in the office," Riveland said, though any computer-related cost for Internet posts would be miniscule _ more comparable to a local call than a long-distance one.

"I think whenever there's a new tool in the office, there's a question of how do you ensure its proper use and then when does it fall into a tool that increases worker productivity," she said from her Olympia office.

It's up to supervisors to make sure workers aren't abusing their Internet access, Riveland said. But she added that she planned to make sure Ecology employees are aware they violate state policy when they use state Internet accounts for recreation.

Bill Harris, an environmental engineer at Ecology, posted to the Internet 100 times between June 1, 1995, and Aug. 1 _ a total that includes 61 postings to a newsgroup called rec.music.gdead that focuses on the Grateful Dead band.

Harris said he got caught up in the recreational newsgroups without thinking too much about the appropriateness of such exchanges on his work account.

He said he recently decided to limit his postings to official business.

"After thinking about it, I decided that was the right thing to do," Harris said.

"Really, your calling me was a real wake-up for me," he added.

Each agency is responsible for framing its own Internet usage policy, but generally, "Internet access should be used to conduct state business and in a manner that advances the public's interest," said Jordan Dey, spokesman for Gov. Mike Lowry.

"And it should not be used for personal gain or private advantage. It certainly should not be used for screwing off."

Temporary state worker Lori Bowdish said she realizes her 37 postings between March 6 and June 4 to an electronic mailing list probably would be considered inappropriate, though she added that she made them on her own time.

"It's sort of like the phone _ on breaks and lunch you can use it, but it's supposed to be used for business purposes," said Bowdish, who made the postings while at the Department of Revenue and now is with the state Health Care Authority, where she has no Internet access.

"I guess I shouldn't have been doing what I did," she said.

Doug Follett, a security officer for the state House of Representatives, said he was unaware of any state policies on Internet usage when he posted 86 times between April 23 and July 11 _ 62 times to a newsgroup called rec.crafts.brewing about beer-making.

"I was doing it on my breaks," said Follett, who added that he had been advised against future recreational posts from work.

"I wasn't aware of it but it is an ongoing policy," he said, citing concern about the impact of an interview on his "fairly sensitive position."

His boss, Ron Finley, posted 11 times between April 23 and May 18 about drinking beer _ "I get hung over at the drop of a hat" _ and boat maintenance. He refused to be interviewed, citing the sensitivity of his position.

House Clerk Tim Martin said he considered the usage inappropriate and was taking steps to prevent future abuses.

"We have a special duty as state employees to ensure our actions don't reflect poorly on state government," Martin said. Recreational postings from work leave "the impression that there's a misuse of public resources, and that's not right."

DOT spokesman Rick Olson said he intended to do a Deja News search to find out which agency employees had been using the Internet inappropriately.

"We're going to want to find out who these people are because we do believe Internet use is a privilege, not a right," Olson said.

Wickham wants state governments to take a more active role in preventing abuse of Internet access by state workers. Many private companies use software to monitor their employees' activities and to limit where on the Internet they can go, he noted.

"What I would like to see happen is the state take responsibility. Now that they've got all these employees on the internet, they should take responsibility and train them how to use it and set parameters on what they want it to be used for," Wickham said.

"To me, they just haven't set the parameters and that's why the people are doing it."

A 1991 executive order makes clear that state computer systems are only for state business, said Steve Kolodney, director of the Department of Information Services.

"When we find them being used improperly, we investigate them properly," said Kolodney, who did not know of any employee being investigated for improper use of the Internet.

Wickham's searches make clear the problem goes beyond Washington state. He has created a webpage with examples from every state in the union.

"Some of what I've got on that webpage, I feel real bad about putting on there," he said.

"There's one guy in Tennessee who goes into a long story about being sexually abused by his minister. You hate to put that out there but man, they shouldn't be doing that. What drives someone to do that I can't imagine.'"