Magazine article Security Management

Who's Watching the Workplace? the Electronic Monitoring Debate Spreads to Capitol Hill

Magazine article Security Management

Who's Watching the Workplace? the Electronic Monitoring Debate Spreads to Capitol Hill

Article excerpt

At an auto-parts factory in Ontario, 40 employees brought a lawsuit against their employer for having video cameras installed in their restrooms. A police undercover drug squad had installed the cameras for temporary surveillance because a Colombian drug cartel was suspected of operating there. * Female nurses in a Connecticut hospital discovered a concealed camera in their locker room and found it was monitored by male security officers. The nurses complained this was a violation of their privacy. * An electronic mail (e-mail) system administrator was fired from a California computer company for insubordination after she alleged that the company's interception and reading of e-mail messages violated the privacy of employees...

1984 has come and gone, and yet the question remains: Is Big Brother watching? In George Orwell's epic novel 1984, residents of a futuristic London were subject to a police state where every movement was watched-at work and at home. In 1991, our society is steamrolling ahead with new electronic surveillance technologies that sometimes make the old ones obsolete in a matter of just a year or two.

In recent years technology has given us the ability to send e-mail messages, work on networked computers, talk on cellular and cordless phones, and observe activity happening elsewhere through video, activities that are not only feasible but increasingly affordable. These breathtaking technologies have also provided employers with the means to more closely monitor employees and keep track of productivity and illegal activity.

However, new bills in Congress may threaten security managers' ability to safeguard their companies and investigate wrongdoing. In the interest of protecting employee privacy, these bills would require companies to notify employees in writing that they will be monitored and to signal to employees when they actually are being monitored.

Though geared to productivity monitoring, those requirements could also severely limit the effectiveness of such security measures as * reading employees' e-mail, * listening in on employees' phone conversations, * accessing employees' hard drives, * monitoring employees through networked computers, * tracking employees with electronic badges, and * monitoring employees with video cameras or CCTV.

According to a reader poll conducted by Nation's Business, 64 percent of respondents think employers should be required to notify workers in advance that their work may be electronically observed. Twenty-five percent of the respondents think employers should be required to signal workers and customers when they are being monitored. The survey results are based on the opinions of 1,555 respondents to the August 1991 "Where I Stand" poll on monitoring employees.

Privacy is an issue of concern to individuals and employers alike. In 1890, Louis D. Brandeis and Samuel D. Warren set the precedent that virtually created the right to privacy in America with an article in the Harvard Law Review that declared privacy "the right of the individual to be let alone."

The authors remarkably predicted, "Numerous mechanical devices threaten to make good the prediction that 'what is whispered in the closet shall be proclaimed from the house-tops.'"(1) They could not have imagined the scope of the mechanical devices available today.

The battle lines have been drawn in the debate over workplace privacy. On one hand, no one likes the idea of being constantly watched. On the other hand, legitimate circumstances exist that call for such monitoring, and security managers want to be heard on the issue. SECURITY MANAGERS FACE A DILEMMA: to provide a secure workplace without violating employees' privacy. They must bear the responsibility for providing a safe and secure workplace for all employees.

Take the example of a hospital that has experienced a rash of drug thefts. The hospital security director has sufficient evidence to believe that drugs are being bought and sold in the nurses' locker room and installs CCTV cameras there to monitor activity. …

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