A few months ago you hired a promising employee, partly because of his genetic disposition toward perfect health. In fact, you've already given him a raise based on the results of the quarterly keystroke count and electronic badge tracking, which showed that he spent more than 86 percent of his average work day at his terminal and that for 92 percent of his time at the computer he was physically engaged in the act of data entry. He may even get a bonus because random phone call and e-mail monitoring revealed superior written and oral communication skills and not a trace of personal activity.
Today 40 million American workers are under surveillance at the office. Women make up 85 percent of that number, as they tend to occupy customer-service and data-entry positions, which are more commonly scrutinized. A recent survey by the American Management Association revealed that 40 percent of all major U.S. firms engage in some form of electronic monitoring of their employees, ranging from keystroke counting to phone and e-mail monitoring to full-scale hidden camera surveillance. What's going on here?
It gets easier every day to indulge your macromanagerial whims and spy on employees. Software such as WinWhatWhere Investigator records all of a user's activity, including keystrokes, the time and date of the action, the workstation, the name of the program, and the title of the activity window—all covertly. And with $100 black-and-white pinhole video cameras readily available, video surveillance is flourishing in the workplace. The Spy Store, a retail chain that also offers its wares on the Internet, claims that representatives from more than two-thirds of the Fortune 500 companies have made purchases.
What's to stop them—ethics?
Know Your Rights—and Wrongs
The American legal system affords precious little protection for its citizens' privacy, and even less when they're in the workplace. The American Civil Liberties Union (www.aclu.org) and other concerned groups have made several unsuccessful attempts to adapt the U.S. Constitution's Fourth Amendment, which was originally intended to protect against unlawful search and seizure of physical property, to include protection against privacy invasion.
But surveillance in its various forms has become a billion-dollar industry, and the captains of that industry have powerful friends in high places who feel they have every right to know your every move. So whose right is it? Most have heard about the hotel workers who were secretly videotaped in their locker room by their employers, but ultimately it was the company that was caught with its pants down when it was forced to make large cash settlements for the unwarranted intrusion.
California Gov. Gray Davis vetoed legislation in October that would have made it illegal for employers to covertly read employee e-mail. Laws to protect privacy in the surveillance age are antiquated: Don't record the audio portion of any conversation in which you are not involved. Most states have greater legal restrictions on the covert capture of sound than of video. But expect that to change as the horror stories increase—and more public attention is paid to privacy.
Aside from the legal issues, there's always the threat of bad PR. When New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani committed city resources to video surveillance, outraged volunteers accused him of creating a police state and then took to the streets to assess the threat to their personal privacy. The findings, which were published as the NYC Surveillance Camera Project (www.mediaeater.com/cameras), mapped the locations of 2,397 cameras, in plain sight, quietly observing the streets of Manhattan. Some estimate that additional hidden cameras could bring the total number to 6,000. And while the presence of Big Brother in the Big Apple appears to have reduced the incidence of "impulse crimes" like car theft and purse snatchings, it seems to have had little effect on premeditated robberies and even less effect on drug dealers, who simply set up shop outside the view of New York's omni present mayor.
Surveillance As Solution
But for every story of surveillance misuse, there is a positive example. Like the case of a California automaker, in which the interception of an e-mail containing sexually harassing words and images quite possibly saved the company from legal hell. These instances serve to remind us why we started down this path at all. Surveillance, when used ethically, can be an invaluable tool. In fact, most companies that employ electronic monitoring disclose the particulars to their employees. This makes the decision to endure spying part of the employment package, to be weighed along with pension and health benefits.
Still, you're not alone if you're afraid of universal surveillance. What can you do about it? Check out "Countermeasures," left, and take the first step toward protecting your privacy.