Many people don’t know that the same privacy rights they enjoy at home or in the marketplace do not extend to the workplace. Employees think conversations around the water cooler or on the phone at work are private. Usually, they’re wrong. While they may know how to secure their Internet connection and phones at home, there is little they can do to provide themselves with the same privacy at work. An increasing number of employers are now using technology to monitor the workplace. Keystroke programs can gather and record every keystroke typed on a computer. Phones are monitored and calls recorded. Some employers even install cameras and audio devices that record conversations. There is even software that triggers a video scan of a cubicle if the keyboard has been idle for a certain length of time.
Since 1997, there has been a 50% increase in workplace spying, according to the annual survey conducted by the American Management Association. For 2003, the survey reports that 75% of employers use technology to watch, listen in, and access email and computer files. Advocates of these practices hail these results as good news. After crushing legal defeats, businesses decided to ramp up efforts to protect themselves in cases of sexual harassment or other workplace misbehavior. And that is the crux of the debate over privacy at work. The computers, phones, and physical space belong to the employer and are provided to the employees for use in their jobs. After discovering workers surfing the Internet, downloading pornography, and using email to harass others or chat with friends, businesses discovered that the same technology that allows such behavior can be used to monitor how employees are spending their time. Employee Internet Monitoring (EIM) has become big business. For example, a convenience store chain installed audio-equipped cameras to cut down on employee theft. The cameras are controlled from a central location so employees never know when they’re being watched. Even municipalities are finding uses for surveillance technology. A neighborhood in Cincinnati has installed a Webcam in an area frequented by drug dealers and prostitutes. Residents claim that illegal activity has fallen sharply on the four street corners that fall under the camera’s eye.
Privacy advocates say the trend has gone too far. Each year since 1997, when the survey began, at least one employer says it has fired an employee for misuse of email. Of course, the definition of email misuse varies according to whom you ask. Opponents of the monitoring technologies point out that people are not machines. They must take breaks and feel that they have some control over their environment in order to be productive, satisfied employees. Knowing that personal phone calls, hallway conversations, and email are monitored injects feelings of resentment and apathy into the work place. Who wants Big Brother for an office mate?
Relying on management fairness does not ease the qualms some feel about the practice of workplace monitoring. If only business related emails can be accessed, someone still has to read the message to make the determination. The same is true of recorded phone calls and non-business-related conversations. Among the safeguards called for by privacy advocates are federal regulations, notification and training of employees on the various monitoring methods used, and limits of monitoring to cases where employers have cause to be suspicious of an employee. Up to now, lawmakers have chosen not to intervene. They point to the very real considerations of company security, and the right of employers to monitor what goes on at the workplace. As technology continues to be used in new ways, the issues may perhaps become clearer.