When Alana Shoars arrived for work at Epson America Inc. one morning in January 1990, she discovered her supervisor reading and printing out electronic mail messages between other employees.
As electronic mail administrator, Shoars was appalled. When she had trained employees to use the computerized system, Shoars told them their mail was private. Now a company manager was violating that trust.
When she questioned the practice, Shoars said, she was told to mind her own business. A day later, she was fired for insubordination. She has since filed a $1 million wrongful termination suit.
A spokesman for Epson America, which is based in Torrance, Calif., refused to discuss Shoars' account of the monitoring episode and insisted that her dismissal had nothing to do with her questioning of the electronic mail practice. He denied that Epson America, the United States marketing arm of a Japanese company, had a policy of monitoring electronic mail.
The Shoars case has brought attention not only to issues of technology and employee privacy, but also to broader questions of ethics among computer professionals. By taking a public stand, Shoars has become a visible exception in a profession that tends to ignore or avoid ethical issues, according to academicians and consultants who monitor the field.
Although Shoars has found a new job as electronic mail administrator at Warner Brothers in Burbank, Calif., she still bristles about Epson:
"You don't read other people's mail just as you don't listen to their phone conversations. Right is right, and wrong is wrong."
Michael Simmons, chief information officer at the Bank of Boston, disagrees totally.
"If the corporation owns the equipment and pays for the network, that asset belongs to the company, and it has a right to look and see if people are using it for purposes other than running the business," he said.
At a previous job, for example, Simmons discovered that one employee was using the computer system to handicap horse races and another was running his Amway business on his computer. Both were fired immediately.
"The guy handicapping horses was using 600 megabytes of memory,"
Federal Express, American Airlines, Pacific Bell and United Parcel Service all have electronic-mail systems that automatically inform employees that the company reserves the right to monitor messages.
But many companies have yet to formulate clear policies or inform employees of those policies.
"It's highly irresponsible for an employer not to have a policy,"
said Mitchell Kapor, former chairman of the Lotus Development Corp., who left the company five years ago.
Some believe, however, that even if there is advance notice, the monitoring of electronic mail or searching through personal files is flat-out wrong. One who takes that position is Eugene Spafford, a computer science professor at Purdue University.
He said: "Even if a company does post notice, is that something it should do? The legal question may be answered, but is it ethical? The company may say it is, but the employees say it isn't, and there's a conflict."
Though they oversee the electronic mail networks, computer professionals have generally removed themselves from such debates. Simmons said that if ethics were the topic of a meeting of information systems experts, "it would be a very short meeting."
Technologists approach the information resource in a distinctive way, said Detmar Straub, assistant professor of management information services at the University of Minnesota.
"They say, `If the system can do it, let's do it,' rather than `should the system do it?' " Straub said. "I've talked to systems managers who say they wouldn't hire a programmer who couldn't break into any system."
But as computers and networks extend their reach into global business, such attitudes may no longer suffice.
"Information systems people should be held to a higher level of ethics than the general population, just as doctors and lawyers are," said Donn B. Parker, a senior management consultant at SRI International in Menlo Park, Calif., who has written extensively about technology and ethics.
Along with the positive gains achieved by technology in the workplace, Parker pointed out, has come the unsettling reality of computer hacking, software piracy, electronic snooping and computer monitoring.
Advances in software technology designed for monitoring or outright snooping on employee's computer screens, for example, are making it easier and cheaper for employers to monitor their workers electronically.
The proliferation of electronic mail has raised the question of the extent to which an employee has a right to privacy in the workplace. Kapor was a founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which was formed in May 1990 to be a watchdog in matters of public policy in information technology and communications.
He said electronic mail presents a "hard case" because it falls halfway between a telephone and written correspondence. "Most business people feel comfortable with an employer's right to examine written material but wouldn't sanction listening in on phone conversations," he said.
In cases where electronic messages have become public, managements have sometimes taken stern stands against employees who merely received messages. For example, Rhonda Hall and Bonita Burke administered an electronic mail network between Nissan and a group of Infiniti dealers in Southern California. They installed hardware and trained the dealers to use the system.
Soon the two women began receiving personal messages, some sexually suggestive, over the system. Another Nissan employee spotted such a message, alerted a supervisor and Burke and Hall were warned to curtail the personal electronic-mail activity, even though they claim the inappropriate messages were not initiated by them. The women submitted a grievance and were fired. Late last year, they filed a lawsuit against Nissan. The suit is still pending.
Don Spetner, a spokesman for the Nissan Motor Corp. U.S.A., said of the women's departure, "it was a performance-related issue, not an `E-mail' issue." He added: "In fact, one of the women wasn't fired; she resigned. We are confident we will win the case."
The Federal Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986 protects the privacy of electronic messages sent through public networks like Compuserve and MCI Mail to which individuals and companies subscribe. But the law does not apply to internal electronic mail within corporations. Formulating such a law for corporate settings would be virtually impossible, most experts believe.
Some information systems executives say that a code of ethics aimed at computing is unnecessary, that corporate codes of ethics encompass the work they do. But even if that were true, relying on corporate codes to cover technology might not be enough because not every company has one.
A recent survey by Robert Half International Inc. found that only 44 percent of the largest companies in the United States had a written code of ethics. Those that do have such policies rarely address technology issues head on.
Other computer professionals insist that ethics are simply not an issue.
"In 28 years in this business, I could count on one hand the number of times I or somebody else had to point out ethical issues in information systems," said John Coman, manager of networks and information services at ARCO in Los Angeles.
But, in any case, "by and large, information systems professionals are taking a subservient role in the dialogue about the use of information," said H. Jeffrey Smith, assistant professor at Georgetown University's School of Business Administration.
"Considering that many companies are using technology to gain a strategic advantage, that is particularly troubling."
Although many professional associations in the field have codes of ethics for their members, Parker insists that no new rules of conduct are needed because the golden rule still applies. "When people log onto a computer or network, they don't automatically turn off their ethical values," he said.…