“…An employee enters an unauthorized area of the company, his smart-chip badge triggering a hidden surveillance camera. That sends an alert to a security officer, who uses his laptop or cell phone to monitor what the intruder is up to…”
‘Big Brother’ Firms Keep Eye On Workers
An employee enters an unauthorized area of the company, his smart-chip badge triggering a hidden surveillance camera. That sends an alert to a security officer, who uses his laptop or cell phone to monitor what the intruder is up to.
Once the realm of Tom Cruise movies, scenes such as this one are playing out at a worksite near you.
What’s more, employer surveillance of workers and property extends beyond the video screen: The boss can tell what Web sites you’ve visited on office computers, the content of e-mail you haven’t even sent, even your every move through cell phones equipped with global positioning. And coming soon: Employee identification through biometrics – measuring such biological components as fingerprints and voice pattern – as well as grain-of-wheat-sized chips implanted under the skin, turning you, in effect, into an EZPass.
All of which might lead the unsuspecting employee to ask: Just what privacy rights do I have when it comes to electronic monitoring? Darn few, says L. Camille Hebert, law professor at Ohio State University and author of “Employee Privacy Law” (Thomson West).
Certainly, bosses can cite significant reasons for tracking worker activity: Monitoring can go a long way toward cutting down on sexual harassment, workplace accidents and goofing off. Plus, in lawsuits, courts expect employers to be able to hand over electronic evidence.
So such surveillance is on the increase: The use of video monitoring for theft, violence and sabotage rose last year to 51 percent of 526 employers surveyed by the American Management Association and ePolicy Institute; only 33 percent were using such monitoring four years earlier.
The federal Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986 – amended in 2001 – gives employers what privacy experts call pretty much carte blanche. Nancy Flynn, executive director of the ePolicy Institute in Columbus, Ohio, says the provisions of the act can be translated this way: “The computer system is the property of the employer and as such the employer has the right to monitor Internet activity and e-mail. Employees should have no reasonable expectation to privacy.”
Still, the exchange of privacy for more efficiency and security carries costs when it comes to employee morale, says Lewis Maltby, president of the National Workrights Institute in Princeton, N.J. He poses these real and potential situations: A woman who found out she was pregnant visited an expectant mothers’ Web site and then got confronted by her boss later that day. Or a worker who sends her doctor an e-mail containing terminology that could also have sexual meaning. Or those subjected to video surveillance in restrooms or changing rooms.
Most employers who use forms of surveillance say they notify their employees. The American Management/ePolicy Institute research found that 80 percent let workers know they’re being monitored for computer content, keystrokes and keyboard time; 82 percent let them know computer files are stored and reviewed; 86 percent, that e-mail is tracked; and 89 percent, that Web visits are monitored.
Despite its potential for abuse, electronic monitoring can and does serve valuable workplace purposes.
Supporters of workplace surveillance point to evidence of its value:
Fourteen nursing home employees in Rochester, N.Y., were charged last month by state Attorney General Eliot Spitzer with fraud and falsifying records because they had moved call bells out of patients’ reach so they could watch television or socialize. Their activity was captured when the room of a 70-year-old man with dementia was monitored through video surveillance cameras.
Percentage of employers monitoring some or all of their employees in the following ways:
- •Monitoring and reviewing Web Sites visited: 76 percent
•Storing and reviewing e-mail messages: 55 percent
•Using smart-card technology to control building/data center access: 53 percent
•Monitor time spent on the phone and numbers called: 51 percent
•Using video surveillance to counter theft, violence, sabotage: 51 percent
•Saving and reviewing employees’ computer files: 50 percent
•Monitoring time employees spend on computer, content, keystrokes entered: 36 percent
•Taping employee phone conversations: 22 percent
•Using video surveillance to monitor performance: 16 percent
•Taping and reviewing voice mail messages: 15 percent
•Using GPS technology to monitor/track employee ID/smart cards: 8 percent
•Using fingerprints scans to control building/data center access: 5 percent
•Using GPS technology to monitor/track company cell phones: 5 percent
•Using iris scan technology to control building access: 0.5 percent