One morning not long ago, a team of analysts at a major New York bank walked into work and found their lives turned upside down. The IT department had set up Web-browsing restrictions on all of their computers. Suddenly the young financiers could not access their personal email accounts. Suddenly they could not G-chat.
It didn’t take long for one of the guys — a math-minded “quant,” who had 20 years experience writing code — to work out a small program to override the restriction. “We ran it on our computers, it saved some files in the right places and then changed our Internet configuration so that it circumvented the security,” said one of the analysts who benefited from the heroic hack. Ever since, he has been happily chatting and sending emails to friends using a hard-to-read, black-and-green Gmail scheme called “Matrix,” which makes it so that supervisors walking by his desk think he’s running some highly technical DOS-based financial model.
This is what freedom looks like in 2010 for young people working at large corporate firms around the city that have been cracking down on employees’ Internet use. According to a spokesman for the Web-filtering-software firm Websense, most of their New York clients are motivated by security. The issue isn’t necessarily productivity, he said — it’s that Web sites that accept user-generated content are particularly vulnerable to “malicious injections.”
And so, as social media and the Web in general become increasingly crucial tools for New York’s ruling class, analysts at banks, paralegals at law firms, even employees of some news organizations and publishing houses must endure Web restrictions that are shaping their lives, isolating them from friends and generally disconnecting them from the outside world.
“It’s tough dealing with that when you’re fresh out of college and you’re still interested in the world,” said Alec Liu, a 24-year-old who worked as an analyst at the New York office of a European bank before quitting finance for an internship at Motherboard.TV. Mr. Liu said his two years in finance — where his Internet use was severely limited — left him feeling separated from friends and the culture at large. “To lose a pretty big chunk of your life — it was frustrating,” he said.
In some offices, filters are in place to prevent people from visiting sites like eBay, Craigslist and Amazon, and from reading Gawker, Dealbreaker and ESPN. In others, every computer comes with a timer that clicks on whenever an employee calls up a self-publishing platform like Tumblr and Blogspot. That system sets a limit on how much time can be spent at those sites, forcing some particularly motivated bloggers to draft posts offline in Microsoft Word before logging on very briefly — so as to use as little time as possible — to put them up.
Aarti Kapoor, a Harvard ’07 graduate, has been dealing with Web restrictions since she went to work for Citigroup out of school. Not only was her Gmail account off limits — so were YouTube and the celebrity news blogs she liked to check. Because Ms. Kapoor didn’t yet have an iPhone, her only time for personal email was at home, late at night. When she started looking for a new job, the typically endless hours she was spending in the office meant that she had to respond to time-sensitive emails from headhunters at 3 o’clock in the morning.
Eventually Ms. Kapoor left Citi for a boutique investment bank where Internet use was regulated much less vigorously. It was great for a while. But recently, as the firm has grown, the same old restrictions have started popping up even there.
“Investment banking is notorious for its challenging hours and lack of work-life balance,” Ms. Kapoor said by phone the other night, fresh off a 135-hour work week. “On an average day, you have maybe two hours to yourself, so it would be nice to not waste that precious time on perfunctory tasks, like responding to emails, which you could have otherwise handled during downtime at work.”
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