Law Would Outlaw Bosses' Electronic Snooping

July 20, 2000 12:00 am

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WASHINGTON, DC — A bipartisan group of lawmakers has introduced a bill that would ban companies from secretly monitoring employees’ electronic communications, MSNBC reported.

“We would never stand for it if an employer steamed open an employee’s mail, read it and put it back,” said Sen. Charles Schumer, D-NY, a co-sponsor of the bill, according to MSNBC. “It is the same thing with an employee’s e-mail.”

The courts have upheld an employer’s right to snoop on workers, since workers are using company equipment on company premises and on company time.

Under the bill, employers could still secretly monitor any employee, without notice, if there is a “reasonable” suspicion that illegal activity is taking place.

New technologies have made it simple and cheap for even small businesses to covertly monitor employees’ electronic communication, according to privacy rights groups.

The practice of secretly monitoring employees is on the rise. The American Management Association in New York estimates that 45 percent of companies with 1,000 or more employees snoop on workers in some manner. Schumer said Thursday that figure is now at 75 percent.

The bill has support across ideological lines from advocacy groups: the American Civil Liberties Union and the conservative Eagle Forum both endorsed the bill.

“The vast majority of Americans are not even granted the common courtesy of notice if their employer eavesdrops,” said Gregory Nojeim, a lawyer in the ACLU’s legislative office. (Only Connecticut requires that employers give such notice; California’s governor vetoed a similar workplace monitoring notice bill last year.)

“Right now businesses are generally allowed to listen in on their employees’ phone calls and rifle through their e-mails without the employees’ knowledge,” Nojeim said. “Even the best employee must occasionally make a personal call while at work. It is only fair that people are warned if they are being monitored.”

The bill only addresses the private sector, not the government workplace. Congressional offices have an ad hoc policy of monitoring staffer e-mail, Schumer said, noting that he did not monitor his staff’s e-mail.

The bill also covers video cameras, but only if the tape also records audio. Under this bill, an employer could legally wire up a Web cam, with no sound enabled, to secretly monitor an employee locker room, bathroom or workplace.

Under the bill, employer would be subject to up to $20,000 in fines per employee if they disobey the law and a maximum of $500,000 per incident.

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