Net-Style Privacy — A Communication Nightmare?

Big Brother: Net-Style Privacy — A Communication Nightmare?

Cynthia L. Kemper

Big Brother is watching. And so is your employer, your friendly online Internet store, and possibly even your spouse — just to name a few. Indeed, George Orwell’s view of the future — in his famous mind-expanding book “1984” — seems to be getting closer and closer to reality as we pioneer the wild west of a new technological era.

Hold on to your virtual cowboy hats — your right to privacy is taking a turn for the worse.

Electronic voyeurism is becoming all the rage — and much of it is not in our best interests as consumers, or as citizens, for that matter. Privacy issues, more recently raised by the Internet, are now facing us head-on. With guns loaded.

Case in point: SpectorSoft’s commercially available monitoring and surveillance software ushers in one of the first “Big-Brother-like” tools to be introduced. According to Int r@ctive Week, one part of this “spy” software is designed to “secretly record everything your spouse, children and employees do online” on a particular computer. The other part, called eBlasrer, lets the user “find out everything your spouse, children and employees do online via e-mail.”

Lewis Koch, a concerned investigative reporter and author of two books on marital therapy, marriage and family, is more than alarmed. His recent article in Inter@ctive Week notes comments from others who have reviewed the software:

“This program works so well it’s scary,” says Brian Chick at CyberWalker Media Syndicate. “Spector does what it says it will do. Kids and employees will hate it.”

In a review for PC World Philippines, H.G. Bulos says, “There is something fiendishly gratifying about taking a peek at what other people do when no one is watching. Especially when you want to catch them in the act.”

Koch goes on to say, “Only Peter H. Lewis at the New York Times seems interested in exploring the ethical issues.” Lewis writes, ‘[Spector] is a program that runs on an operating system of distrust and secrecy.

But it doesn’t stop here. Our online shopping experiences and employer-employee relationships are being adversely affected as well.

Business Week’s Heather Green reports, “Even as I type, Net companies are scanning customer lists, tabulating what types of customers bought what kinds of products, what they looked at — and taking educated guesses about what they may buy next. These data, though, could very well be a privacy time bomb…. Customer trust, after all, is a gift worth keeping.”

Amazon.com is a case in point. When it was caught gathering more personal information than any of us could have known from Amazon’s site-published privacy policy, outraged customers filed class-action suits. As a result, the beleaguered company finally sent a copy of its full privacy policy to all customers via e-mail. What was revealed is a bit scary. Just about anything goes. And our options? Well, if we want to do business with Amazon.com online, we have no choice. The company’s view of the world, and use of our data, rules.

What does this really mean? According to Green, “More shopping and browsing data are becoming linked to your real identity and stockpiled for use in direct-marketing campaigns. The advertising you see is more focused — which means you are exposed to a narrower swath of offerings, probably tailored to your income. More troubling, if you are ever the target of a lawsuit, all the details of where you browse and what you buy may become public.”

Even if your favorite dot.com has a privacy policy, it may not matter much in the long run. The original firm may protect your data as promised, but the company that acquires it next year is not required to do the same. And in contrast to your credit report — of which you are allowed access to a free copy in the U.S. once each year — there is no single source to determine what information has been collected about you and your habits via the Internet.

It’s starting to sound more and more like “Big Brother” all the time.

One more area deserves close attention. An increasing number of companies are monitoring their employees’ Internet usage today. They’re looking for abuses of a variety of forms generally, but many who have implemented this “Spector-like” surveillance have not yet told their employees. Beyond the betrayal of trust issues that conduct like this creates, it’s appalling that there is so little questioning taking place around whether this “spying” is wrong or right.

“The most commonly abused web sites at work are porn,” says David Greenfield, Ph.D., head of the Center for Internet Addiction. According to Business Week, as much as 70 percent of traffic on porn sites takes place during work hours. Further, SexTracker, a service that monitors usage of such sites, estimates that one in five white-collar workers is accessing pornography at work.

These are not the only non-work-related sites employees surf. Shopping, vacation research, eBay trades, and portfolio investing take place online too — all on company time. In fact, according to International Data Corporation (IDC) of Framingham, Mass., cyberloafing accounts for 30 percent to 40 percent of lost worker productivity today.

“The dirty little secret of e-commerce is that it’s being done from 9 to 5,” says Andrew Meyer, marketing vice-president of Websense Inc., a San Diego-based maker of employee monitoring software. Business Week adds, “Websense estimates that the price tag of all this Internet distraction is $54 billion annually.

The shocking fact, though, is that “nearly three-quarters of major U.S. companies are now recording and reviewing their employees’ communication, including telephone calls, e-mail and Internet connections — a figure that has doubled since 1997, according to the American Management Association.” As a way to counter what corporations view as “mounting bad behavior by employees,” they’re shopping for Web-monitoring software in droves. As a result, DC predicts that the Internet surveillance industry will have a compounded annual growth rate of 75 percent through 2003.

Business Week reports, “Companies…provide software that can record an employee’s every move, including thoughts that she types on her keyboard and then erases, as well as Web sites visited and e-mails sent and received. Some programs will even send an alarm-like bell to human-resources heads to alert them that an employee is trolling a porn site. About 40 percent of companies are now using such software, up from 17 percent in late 1998.”

While lawsuits over sexually explicit e-mails and porn-site visits were the main worry a year ago, today’s concern focuses mostly on the issue of wasted time and effort. IDC predicts that 80 percent of companies will be monitoring all of their employees’ behavior online by July 2001. And, as expected, the employee backlash has already begun with encryption programs and other schemes.

Internet privacy issues — barely a blip on the screen a year ago — now affect how we relate to our governments, our families, our favorite online stores, and the work place too.

The real issues go even deeper.

It seems that our basic human rights are being pushed further and further aside in the interest of advancement of the technology “gods.” From my research, it appears that the score stands at Technology: 1, Human Beings: 0.

The fourth amendment of the United States Constitution states, “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated.”

I believe many would agree that we’re coming precipitously close to ignoring one of our core constitutional freedoms as we tread to come up with the right balance of rights vs. restrictions in this new unknown Internet territory, but the signs of abuse are everywhere. Unfortunately, it will get worse before it gets better. That much you can count on.

We’ve all heard it before — we’re living in changing, volatile times. In our rush to strike gold and pioneer new homesteads on pristine, virgin technological land, we may be forgetting one very important thing: Decisions are made by those who show up. This is the law of frontier land, so don’t put your head in the sand.

Over the coming months decisions will be made in many countries that will affect us and future generations for decades, even centuries, from now. Don’t miss the opportunity to make a difference if you can.

One simple piece of advice from Koch makes a lot of sense for those of you nor wanting to spy on your children: “Instead of destroying your children’s trust by spying on them — they will find out; they’re much smarter than you think — try honesty. Talk about it. Not once. Not even once a week or once a month, but every time you get anxious. Your child is likely to respond to your honesty with honesty of his or her own — not always and certainly not easily. But often enough that you should reconsider the idea of spying on your child. Instead exhibit honest concern and appropriate, up-front protectiveness.”

He concludes, “Right now, the law seems to be saying that spying on employees is legal. Just like the law used to say that it was legal to work people 10 or 12 hours per day in sweatshop conditions or exclude people from voting based on the color of their skin. That still doesn’t make it right.”

Once again, it appears that trust is becoming a commodity casually traded for profits, information and accessibility in this new world. One must ask the question “How committed can an employee be to an organization that blatantly says ‘I don’t trust you’ in this way?”

Cynthia Kemper is president of Edgewalkers International, Denver, Colo.

COPYRIGHT 2000 International Association of Business Communicators

COPYRIGHT 2002 Gale Group