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
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
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
"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
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
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. …