Casey Newton Column

Casey Newton

Pop quiz, Northwestern employees: Have you inspected your hard drive lately?

It’s not a bad idea – and it could save your job. So open up Windows Explorer and take a long, hard look. See any MP3s there?

If you do, get rid of them. Because if you don’t, your boss might get rid of you.

Carla Tomino learned that lesson Monday when she was fired after nearly six years as a secretary and program assistant in the Office of Development. The reason? Administrators discovered more than 2,000 song files on her work computer.

Tomino, a 50-year-old Rogers Park resident, doesn’t fit the profile of a typical Napsterite. For one thing, she never used Napster – NU blocked access to it before she discovered the joys of downloading. For another, she says nearly all the MP3s on her computer were ripped from CDs she had, and that the others were non-copyrighted concert bootlegs and hard-to-find gems by long-dead artists.

The story of her firing began about a week ago, when Tomino’s computer locked up and she couldn’t log on to the network. She called her office’s technology support staff, and during the investigation that followed, her computer was confiscated. On Monday morning, personnel manager Christine Rawak asked to see her.

Both Rawak and Associate Vice President for Human Resources Guy Miller declined to comment. But according to Tomino, Rawak said NU had been contacted by ex-Beatle George Harrison’s music publisher, who had traced illegal downloads to Tomino’s work computer. When NU checked it out, they found several gigabytes worth of songs, many of which were copyrighted. As a result, Rawak told her, her employment with NU had been terminated.

No warning. No “shape up or ship out.” Just a box and a “clean out your cubicle.” She even had to surrender her WildCARD.

Tomino is appealing her dismissal.

“I didn’t think I was doing anything wrong,” she says, “and it didn’t interfere with my work. It’s only if the university is backed into a corner with a threat of liability that they’ll act on it and terminate me, a minor player.”

Then again, the NU staff handbook explicitly warns against abusing network privileges.

“Some violations of policy and rules are serious enough to result in immediate discharge,” it reads. “These include but are not limited to … unauthorized use of information systems or data.”

Roger Safian, NU’s information security coordinator, investigates charges of network abuse. While he says he’s unfamiliar with Tomino’s case, Safian says employee network-use policies are relatively unambiguous.

“I think it should be reasonably clear to an employee that while they’re at work, they’re supposed to be doing work,” he says “And if they’re not, then that’s a problem. I think the university is very generous in allowing employees to use the network for a certain amount of incidental use.”

And storing 2,000 song files on your work computer, he says, is excessive.

“That’s a lot,” he says. “A reasonably intelligent person should have realized that at some point they had crossed the threshold of ‘incidental use’ to ‘you aren’t doing your job – you’re just downloading MP3s.'”

But tending her music collection didn’t stop Tomino from receiving positive performance reviews, she says. And she limited her downloading largely to lunch breaks and after business hours.

And if she could have her job back, she says she’d take it – and leave the MP3s at home.

“I’ll take them all off – it’s no problem to me,” she says. “I just wish somebody had let me know.”

Casey Newton is a Medill senior. E-mail him at [email protected]