Workplace Surveillance

Employees in nearly every country are vulnerable to comprehensive surveillance by managers. Legal protections are generally more lax in such circumstances because surveillance is frequently imposed as a condition of employment. In many countries employers can tap phones, read email and monitor computer screens. They can bug conversations, analyze computer and keyboard work, peer through CCTV cameras, use tracking technology to monitor personal movements, analyze urine to detect drug use, and demand the disclosure of intimate personal data.

The technology being used to monitor workers is extremely powerful. It can analyze "keystrokes" on a terminal to determine whether employees are making efficient use of their time between telephone conversations. Software companies call this process "performance monitoring." Even in workplaces staffed by highly skilled information technology specialists, bosses demand the right to spy on every detail of a workers performance. Modern networked systems can interrogate computers to determine which software in being run, how often, and in what manner. A comprehensive audit trail gives managers a profile of each user, and a panorama of how the workers are interacting with their machines. The software also gives managers total central control over the software on each individual PC. A manager can now remotely modify or suspend programs on any machine.

The technology being used extends to every aspect of a worker's life. Miniature cameras monitor behavior. "Smart" ID badges track an employee's movement around a building. Telephone Management Systems (TMS) analyze the pattern of telephone use and the destination of calls. Psychological tests, general intelligence tests, aptitude tests, performance tests, vocational interest tests, personality tests and honesty tests are all electronically assessed. Surveillance and monitoring have become design components of modern information systems.

While companies assert that all surveillance is justified, it is clear that not all uses of monitoring are legitimate. Following some organizing activity by a local union, one employer installed video cameras to monitor each individual workstation and worker. Although management claimed that the technology was being established solely for safety monitoring, two employees were suspended for leaving their workstations to visit the toilet without permission. According to a 1993 report of the International Labour Office, the activities of union representatives on the floor was also inhibited by a "chilling effect" on workers who knew their conversations were being monitored.

In Britain and the United States, there are few legal constraints on video surveillance, unlike the laws of Austria, Germany, Norway and Sweden, under which employers are obliged to seek agreement with workers on such matters.

This situation has been challenged in the European Court of Human Rights. Former British Assistant Chief Constable Allison Halford had complained that following her sex discrimination complaint against the police, her office phone had been bugged. While the British government asserted that this was an entirely lawful and proper activity, Halford maintained that it breached the right of privacy contained in the European Convention on Human Rights. The court agreed, and ruled that the police had acted improperly in bugging MsHalford's phone.

The practice is likely to breach laws which form in the wake of the European Telecommunications Directive. Currently, however, the court's decision appears to do little more than oblige bosses to notify workers that they should have no expectation of privacy on the phone. And accordingly, most businesses are moving to routine monitoring of phone calls.