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Keep an eye on computer users with these tech tools

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Business owners have many reasons to monitor the digital footprints of computer users, from protecting their company from theft to ensuring the workplace is free of harassment. But doing it right – legally and ethically – should be a priority.

Here are several tools to consider:

Tracking use of computers and smartphones: A slew of products is available for tracking activity on company devices. Be sure to use reputable, reliable and secure software, and avoid anything smacking of spyware or malware.

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SpectorSoft makes products that can record everything that occurs on company devices and provide reports about suspect activity (from $99 U.S. for one basic licence to $2,875 for a 25-person office). Administrators can direct the software to monitor specific people and give particular managers the right to set policy and review collected data, all of which is encrypted while moving across your systems and when sitting in storage.

Monitoring social media usage: An array of companies has emerged that aim to help companies monitor employee activity on blogs and sites including Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn, and to enforce their policies. For instance, SocialLogix can assess the level of social media use – or abuse – at your company (one-time fee starting at $2,000), uncover what employees are doing and saying, and alert you to potential problems (about $10 per user per month).

Other companies that monitor social media activity include Actiance and Socialware.

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Blocking websites: Many companies use secure Web gateways or Web filters to monitor employee use of the Web, block malware-laced sites and keep employees from accessing sites in categories of concern, from news to porn to gambling.

Creating a technology policy: Get help crafting a technology-use policy with online tools such as the customizable forms offered by the ePolicy Institute. The firm's form kit ($99, one-time fee) can help you outline your rules for using and tracking e-mail and instant messaging, Web surfing and blogging and software downloading on company devices. It also offers a template for creating social media policies ($49). Make sure your policies also cover employees' use of their own devices while at work and when accessing company data.

Among the most popular providers of such tools is Websense (about $50 per user). Other well-regarded providers include Blue Coat Systems and McAfee. Some monitoring programs also offer Web filtering.

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Riva Richmond is a freelance journalist who has covered technology for more than 10 years. She writes regularly on electronic security and privacy for The New York Times and its Gadgetwise and Bits blogs. She has also written extensively about small business for The Wall Street Journal and was previously a technology reporter at Dow Jones Newswires.

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