Is Big Brother Watching – Industry Trend or Event

Shari Missman Miller

Issues Surrounding Workplace Privacy

In as much as we would like to reveal a secret method for maintaining privacy, it’s simply not realistic to think privacy is sacred. Privacy is a difficult, if not impossible, thing to maintain securely. Today, we can shred our confidential mail and cross our fingers in the hopes that our identities won’t be stolen, but there’s no realistic way to protect the personal information woven into our lives. Over the past few decades, many books have been written and studies conducted on how to protect personal privacy and how to avoid becoming a victim of credit card or Internet fraud, but how much is known about workplace privacy?

Could you describe your company’s privacy policy? Does your company even have one? The majority of businesses today do participate in some level of employee monitoring while not mandating a policy to govern such monitoring. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) receives complaints from employees about employer monitoring, and the majority of complainants find there are no laws covering workplace privacy.

“The vast majority of Americans are not even granted the common courtesy of notice if their employer eavesdrops,” says Gregory Nojeim, a lawyer in the ACLU’s legislative office. Only Connecticut requires that employers give such notice. “Right now, businesses are generally allowed to listen in on employees’ phone calls and rifle through e-mails without the employees’ knowledge. Even the best employee must occasionally make a personal phone call while at work. It is only fair that people are warned if they are being monitored.”

Undisclosed observation, according to the ACLU’s Workplace Rights Project, generates more work-related complaints to ACLU offices than any other factor. Employees often call to find out what legal action they can take and discover no laws prevent workplace monitoring. The only exception is if employees are watched in places where people have an explicit expectation of privacy, such as bathrooms or locker rooms.

The American Management Association (AMA), whose members employ about 25 percent of the U.S. workforce, says that in 1997, 35 percent of all firms reported monitoring employees in some way, including recording telephone calls, monitoring e-mail, or videotaping. In April 1999, the number rose to 45 percent. Chris Hoofnagle, staff counsel at the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), says that number is now 73 percent.

“The AMA surveyed their 10,000 or so members, and 73 percent of the respondents said they monitor their employees in some way,” explains Hoofnagle. “Some businesses do it when there is some cause or when an employee does something suspicious, and some do it just as a matter of course. Others do it for security reasons.”

The electronic communications privacy act allows owners of networks to monitor communication on their network. “Employees can be monitored even when they are accessing their personal ‘Hotmail’ accounts. As long as they are using the company’s equipment and Internet service provider, the employer can listen in,” says Hoofnagle.

Workplace electronic surveillance is nothing new. Phone monitoring and surveillance cameras have been used for years to ensure quality customer service. But when computers and the Internet became prevalent, advanced surveillance increased. Many employers now purchase “snoop” software to watch over employees’ computers. Federal law prohibits employers from listening in on employees’ private telephone conversations, but there’s no protection when it comes to electronic communications.

Hoofnagle says, though the monitoring is technically legal, for employee relations and ethical reasons, employees should be notified of any type of surveillance. “Employees should have notice of surveillance when they get hired,” says Hoofnagle. “Employers should only monitor for specific purposes, and once the data is collected and is no longer used for this specific purpose, it should be destroyed.”

He notes, “Phone calls recorded for improving customer service should only be used to evaluate quality control and not be used for other purposes. Privacy is a right that provides humans dignity. Areas where employees are supposed to rest should not be monitored or subject to surveillance. There have been a number of cases where employers have filmed employee restrooms. This is very invasive.”

Employers also, in the normal course of business, collect information on their employees, much of it necessary, such as Social Security numbers and addresses. According to Hoofnagle, there have been a number of cases over the years where this information has been exploited within the company and used to steal identities.

“EPIC has, in the past, argued that employees should receive protection in the workplace that incorporates fair information practices. It should be done simply so employees have notice and there are use limitations on the way the data is collected. It should be held securely so cyber vandals and people within the company can’t access the information. Employees should also have the right to view data on themselves and challenge it if it is inaccurate. Currently, the employees have very little protection. I don’t know to what extent the average person understands how he or she can be monitored. Privacy in the workplace is not anti-industry or anti-employer. In fact, if done right, privacy policy can help foster employee/employer relationships,” says Hoofnagle.

Some companies insist the reason they monitor employees is for security. There’s a fine line between maintaining security and maintaining privacy. Most people want to feel secure in their jobs, and employers can’t guarantee that security without compromising privacy. Beyond the basic monitoring of common areas, employers must view their security and privacy policies as issues that need to be understood by all employees. Doug Fillhart, vice president of integrated systems, Ultrak Inc., says there has to be a balance between policies for security and privacy and taking care of the employee. “The security and human resources departments need to properly educate employees about the systems [set up] for their protection,” says Fillhart. “Education is the key. When it comes to placing cameras in strategic areas, it might be seen as intruding. But if the company explains the system and educates the employees, there won’t be as much suspicion.”

Ultrak Inc. designs, manufactures, and services electronic products and systems for the security and surveillance, industrial video, and professional audio markets. Fillhart says every organization has a different reason for monitoring employees. Sometimes it deals with security of assets, and other times it’s for the safety of the employees. “The only time it becomes a Big Brother issue,” notes Fillhart, is when the security program has not been explained. “There has to be education on the electronic side as well as the procedural side. Employees need to know about the system as well as follow policies in place to ensure security.”

Peter J. Mazzaroni, CPP, chairman of the Privacy and Personnel Information Management Council of the American Society for Industrial Security and manager of site services for Roche Carolina Inc., says companies have to do what is prudent and reasonable for their organizations. “They have to look at their organizations,” says Mazzaroni, “look at the risks and the vulnerabilities.” He notes smarter companies are developing task forces or safety/security committees that allow employees to contribute to policy development.

Mazzaroni emphasizes the conflict companies have in terms of protecting their assets and balancing employee privacy. “As we have workplace violence and lawsuits, more and more the question to businesses is going to be, ‘What were you doing for security?’ We are going to see an increase in biometrics as far as better access control and better accountability. I don’t think the perception is as much of a Big Brother attitude. Companies are doing it for the protection of their employees and company assets. Smart companies are making sure their employees know the surveillance is from a protection standpoint, and I think there is a general acceptance of that,” says Mazzaroni.

To complicate matters, in the past couple of years, there have been cases of employers selling employment and salary information to outside companies, which then share that information with landlords and others. Companies have been so inundated with requests from outside businesses looking for information that they’ve turned to employment verification firms for help. Companies electronically feed payroll and other data to employment verification companies, and outsiders trying to verify an employee’s salary or job history can receive the information over the phone, fax, or Internet. Some companies pay $5 or $10 for each report, whereas other companies have paid $10,000 to set up the service. Although the lenders and outsiders seeking the information require a pass code from the employee to receive the information from the employer, the employer can’t guarantee the privacy of the information once it’s released.

Though the AMA reports that four-fifths of employers inform workers of monitoring, it’s not enough for employees to be passive about their privacy. Education about company systems and policies is the first step in protecting privacy. You should be able to find out what your company monitors, and if there’s no policy governing privacy and security, investigate the possibility of starting a task force to address the issues. It’s likely there are other employees who also want to know if their privacy is being compromised.

Shari Missman Miller is a freelance writer based in Florida.

Be Careful What You Sign!

This could be you…

In an actual case from the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse Hotline, an employee named Patty was seeking a promotion in her job with the county. She was shocked when asked to sign a waiver allowing the personnel department to conduct a background check. She felt the waiver was too broad and sent a copy to the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse Hotline.

The waiver read: “This authorization includes, but is not limited to, information, records, statements, and opinions pertaining to my employment, military service, financial status, criminal conviction, child abuse investigation, driving, or educational histories and information of a confidential or privileged nature. This authorization is valid for 24 months from the date indicated below.” Among other things, Patty objected to the open-ended nature of the release form.

COPYRIGHT 2001 Quality Publishing

COPYRIGHT 2002 Gale Group

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