Business Essays - Employee Monitoring Privacy

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Employee Monitoring Privacy

Employee Monitoring Violates Privacy

“Privacy Under Siege: Electronic Monitoring in the Workplace,” National Workrights Institute, 2004, pp. 2–5, 10, 17. Reproduced by permission.

"The company had installed hidden cameras in its restrooms - some cameras pointing directly at the urinals."

According to the National Workrights Institute (NWI) in the viewpoint that follows, employers regularly videotape workers, listen to their phone calls, spy on their Internet usage and Web searches, check their hard drives, and read their personal e-mails. Overall, these acts are extremely invasive, laments the NWI. The group also protests that employees often do not know that they are being monitored, when they are being monitored, or what activities may be monitored. In the NWI's opinion, employers must be barred from committing these indefensible intrusions into the lives of their employees. National Workrights Institute is dedicated to protecting human rights in the workplace.

As you read, consider the following questions:

  • In the NWI's assertion, what is erasing the boundary between the home and the workplace?
  • What technology does the author call the most invasive of all?
  • When employees work from home, what personal information might their employers gain access to, according to the NWI?

Everyone in the office knew that Gail would change her clothes in her cubicle for the gym after the work day was done. When her employers installed a hidden camera to monitor the person in the neighboring cubicle's suspected illegal activities, her daily ritual was captured on film. The first few times could have been labeled as mistakes, but the filming of Gail changing her clothes over a five month period was inexcusable.

Electronic monitoring is a rapidly growing phenomenon in American businesses. Introduced in the early twentieth century for such limited uses as timing breaks and measuring hand-eye movements, systematic electronic monitoring has since grown into the very fabric of American business practice. As technologies become more powerful and easy and inexpensive to install and maintain, the rates of electronic monitoring in this country have skyrocketed. In 1999 the percentage of employers who electronically monitor their workers was 67%.

Just two years later, in the year 2001 this number had increased to 78%. By 2003, 92% of employers were conducting some form of workplace monitoring. This rapid growth in monitoring has virtually destroyed any sense of privacy as we know it in the American workplace. Employers now conduct video surveillance, listen in on employee telephone calls, review employee computer use such as e-mail and the Internet and monitor their every move using GPS [Global Positioning System]. But as legitimate work product is being monitored, so are the personal habits and lives of employees.

As technology has proliferated in the workplace, it has become ever more penetrating and intrusive. And yet there are few, if any, legal protections for employees. There has been no attempt to balance employer demands with legitimate employee privacy concerns. Collection and use of personal information is a rampant byproduct of workplace monitoring and threatens the very freedoms that we cherish as Americans. Legislation is necessary to govern the practice of electronic monitoring in the workplace, protect employee privacy and return a sense of fundamental fairness and dignity to the American workplace.

Personal Communications in the Workplace

While employers generally initiate electronic monitoring in response to legitimate business concerns, the results have been devastating to employee privacy. Virtually everything we do and say at work can be, and is, monitored by our employers. Our employers watch us on video cameras, read our e-mails, listen to our voice mail, review documents on our hard drives, and check every web site we visit.

This would be bad enough if it involved only work related behavior and communication, but it doesn't. The advent of cell phones, pagers, and home computers is rapidly erasing the traditional wall between the home and the workplace. People now regularly receive communications from their employer at home.

Maggie Jackson, former workplace correspondent for the Associated Press, estimates that the average professional or managerial employee now receives over 20 electronic messages from work every week. This new flexibility also means that personal communication increasingly occurs in the workplace. An employee who spent much of the weekend on a cell phone with her boss will not (and should not) consider it inappropriate to make a personal call from the office.

This means that employer monitoring systems frequently record personal communications. Often, this communication is not sensitive. But sometimes the messages are very personal. An employee who sends their spouse a romantic e-mail while eating lunch at his or her desk can find that their love letter has been read by their boss. Or a note to a psychiatrist stored in an employee's hard drive is disclosed.

Internet and Video Monitoring

Internet monitoring can be extremely invasive. People today turn to the Internet as their primary source of information, including sensitive subjects they would be uncomfortable communicating about on their office telephone or e-mail. In part, this is because of the efficiency of Internet research. Even an untrained person can find information on the web in minutes that would have taken hours or even days to find by traditional means (if they could find it at all). People also turn to the Internet for information because they can do so anonymously.

The result is that people turn to the Internet for information and help about the most sensitive subjects imaginable. Women who are victims of domestic abuse turn to the Internet for information about shelters and other forms of help. People also turn to the Web for information and help with drug and alcohol problems, financial difficulties, marital problems, and medical issues. Monitoring Web access gives an employer a picture window into employees' most sensitive personal problems.

Most invasive of all is video monitoring. Some cameras are appropriate. Security cameras in stairwells and parking garages make us all safer without intruding on privacy. But employers often install cameras in areas that are completely indefensible. Many employers have installed hidden video cameras in locker rooms and bathrooms, sometimes inside the stalls. No one should be subjected to sexual voyeurism on the job.

Improper Methods

Such problems are made worse by the manner in which monitoring is often conducted. Most employers make no effort to avoid monitoring personal communications. The majority of employers install systems that make no distinction between business and personal messages, even when more discriminating systems are available.

In addition to official monitoring, IT [information technology] employees often monitor their fellow employees for personal reasons. Most employers give such employees carte blanche access to employee communications. While it is possible to set up technical barriers to ensure that monitoring is confined to official programs, few employers use them. Many employers do not even have policies directing IT employees to restrict their monitoring to official programs. Even employers with such policies rarely have procedures to enforce them. As a result, employees involved in monitoring often read the messages of fellow employees for their own amusement.

The final indignity is that employees don't even know when they are being watched. While a majority of employers provide employees what is described as notice, still many do not and the information currently provided is generally useless. The standard employer notice states only that the company reserves the right to monitor anything at any time. Employees do not know whether it is their e-mail, voice mail, Web access, or hard drive that is monitored. They do not know whether the monitoring is continuous, random, or as needed. They do not even know whether they are being monitored at all. Such notice is almost worse than no notice at all.

Special Problems for Telecommuters

As bad as the situation is today, it is likely to be far worse in the future. Many people today do work for their employer on their home computers. The most direct example of this is telecommuting. Approximately 20 million employees and independent contractors now work at home at least one day per month, and this number is growing rapidly. Millions more have linked their home computer to their office network so they can work from home informally on evenings and weekends.

When this occurs, people's home computers are subject to monitoring by their employer. Workplace computer monitoring systems monitor the entire network, including a home computer that is temporarily part of the network. This means that personal communications in our home computers will be revealed to our employers.

Personal e-mail sent from or received by our home computers will be disclosed to our employers, along with personal letters, financial records, and any other personal information in our home computers. Not only is this possible, it is highly likely. When asked if they would be interested in having personal information from employees' home computers, corporate attorneys responded positively.

Employers generally conduct electronic monitoring in order to increase productivity. It is far from clear, however, that monitoring achieves this goal. In fact, too much monitoring can actually decrease productivity by increasing employee stress and decreasing morale. ...

Stories of Workplace Monitoring Across America

At a Neiman-Marcus Store in Fashion Island Newport Beach [California], Kelly Pendleton, a two-time "employee of the year" discovered a hidden camera in the ceiling of the changing room used by female employees that was being monitored by male colleagues.

Employees of Consolidated Freightways were horrified to find that the company had installed hidden cameras in its restrooms - some cameras pointing directly at the urinals. Over a thousand hours of video records were made covering thousands of employees. "The guys were really shaken, and some of the women went home crying," says Joe Quilty, the dockworker who discovered the hidden cameras.

An AT&T employee received a formal reprimand for using the company e-mail system to send a love note to his wife, also an AT&T employee...

The explosion of workplace surveillance in recent years has stripped Americans of virtually all their privacy on the job. Nearly 80% of employers now use electronic surveillance. Soon it will be universal.

Further Readings


  • Paul Abramson, Steven Pinkerton, and Mark HuppinSexual Rights in America. New York: New York University Press, 2003.
  • George J. AnnasThe Rights of Patients: The Authoritative ACLU Guide to the Rights of Patients. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2004.
  • Clay CalvertVoyeur Nation: Media, Privacy, and Peering in Modern Culture. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2000.
  • Nancy ChangSilencing Political Dissent: How Post-September 11 Anti-Terrorism Measures Threaten Our Civil Liberties. New York: Seven Stories Press, 2002.
  • Jamie CourtCorporateering: How Corporate Power Steals Your Personal Freedom—And What You Can Do About It. New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam, 2003.
  • James X. Dempsey and David ColeTerrorism and the Constitution: Sacrificing Civil Liberties in the Name of National Security. Washington, DC: First Amendment Foundation, 2002.
  • Joseph W. EatonThe Privacy Card: A Low Cost Strategy to Combat Terrorism. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2003.
  • Herbert N. FoerstelRefuge of a Scoundrel: The Patriot Act in Libraries. Westport, CT: Libraries Unlimited, 2004.
  • Simson GarfinkelDatabase Nation: The Death of Privacy in the 21st Century. Cambridge, MA: O'Reilly, 2000.
  • Evan GerstmannSame-Sex Marriage and the Constitution. Los Angeles: Loyola Marymount University, 2003.
  • Eric J. GertlerPrying Eyes: Protect Your Privacy from People Who Sell to You, Snoop on You, and Steal from You. New York: Random House Reference, 2004.
  • Richard A. GlennThe Right to Privacy: Rights and Liberties Under the Law. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2003.
  • John Hagel III and Marc SingerNet Worth: Shaping Markets When Customers Make the Rules. Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 1999.
  • Richard HunterWorld Without Secrets: Business, Crime, and Privacy in the Age of Ubiquitous Computing. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 2002.
  • Bruce KasanoffMaking It Personal: How to Profit from Personalization Without Invading Privacy. Cambridge, MA: Perseus, 2001.
  • Frederick S. LaneThe Naked Employee: How Technology Is Compromising Workplace Privacy. New York: AMACOM Books, 2003.
  • Al LautenslagerUltimate Guide to Direct Marketing. Irvine, CA: Entrepreneur Press, 2005.
  • David LyonSurveillance After September 11. Cambridge, England: Polity Press, 2003.
  • Raneta Lawson Mack and Michael J. KellyEqual Justice in the Balance: America's Legal Responses to the Emerging Terrorist Threat. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2004.
  • Albert J. Marcella and Carol StuckiPrivacy Handbook: Guidelines, Exposures, Policy Implementation, and International Issues. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 2003.
  • C. William MichaelsNo Greater Threat: America After September 11 and the Rise of a National Security State. New York: Algora Publishing, 2002.
  • Mark MonmonierSpying with Maps: Surveillance Technologies and the Future of Privacy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002.
  • Donald J. Musch, ed.Civil Liberties and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. Dobbs Ferry, NY: Oceana Publications, 2003.
  • Robert O'Harrow Jr.No Place to Hide. New York: Free Press, 2005.
  • Jeffrey RosenThe Naked Crowd: Reclaiming Security and Freedom in an Anxious Age. New York: Random House, 2004.
  • Charles J. SykesThe End of Privacy: Personal Rights in the Surveillance Society. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1999.
  • Reg WhitakerThe End of Privacy: How Total Surveillance Is Becoming a Reality. New York: New Press, 1999.


  • Robert W. HahnAn Assessment of the Costs of Proposed Online Privacy Legislation. Washington, DC: Association for Competitive Technology, May 7, 2001.
  • Philippa JefferyKeeping Big Brother from Watching You: Privacy in the Internet Age. Washington, DC: Citizens Against Government Waste, May 14, 2001.
  • Ed Mierzwinski et al, eds.The Clean Credit and Identity Theft Protections Act: Model State Laws. Washington, DC: State Public Interest Research Groups and Consumers Union of U.S., Inc., November 2005.
  • National Forum on Education StatisticsForum Guide to Protecting the Privacy of Student Information: State and Local Education Agencies. NCES 2004-330. Washington, DC: National Forum on Education Statistics, 2004.
  • Marc Rotenberg and Cedric LaurantPrivacy and Human Rights 2004: An International Survey of Privacy Laws and Developments. Washington, DC: Electronic Privacy Information Center and Privacy International, November 17, 2004.
  • U.S. CongressTools Against Terror: How the Administration Is Implementing New Laws in the Fight to Protect Our Homeland. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 2004.
  • Philip WardThe Identity Cards Bill. Research Paper 05/43. London, England: House of Commons Library, June 13, 2005.


  • Clyde Wayne Crews Jr."Monitoring Biometric Technologies in a Free Society," USA Today (Magazine), July 2003.
  • European Civil Aviation Conference"Biometrics," presented to the ICAO summit, Cairo, Egypt, March 22-April 2, 2004.
  • Terry Jones"It's the Internet, Stupid," St. Louis Journalism Review, October 2003.
  • Ted Koppel"Take My Privacy, Please!" New York Times, June 13, 2005.
  • Etelka Lehoczky"Watch Yourself—You Might Be Monitored," Boston Globe, October 10, 2004.
  • Tom Ridge"Remarks at the Center for Strategic and International Studies," Washington, DC, January 12, 2005.
  • Eugene Volokh"Big Brother Is Watching—Be Grateful!" Wall Street Journal, March 26, 2002.
  • Robin L. Wakefield"Employee Monitoring and Surveillance—The Growing Trend," CPA Journal, July 2004.
  • Dick Zunkel"The Other Side of Privacy: Protecting Information with Biometrics," Security Technology & Design, June 2005.

Source Citation:

National Workrights Institute. "Employee Monitoring Violates Privacy." Opposing Viewpoints: Privacy. Ed. Jamuna Carroll. Detroit: Greenhaven Press, 2006. Opposing Viewpoints Resource Center. Thomson Gale. University of MD University College. 5 Nov. 2007