A Paycheck, But No Privacy, for Workers

September 3, 1999 12:00 am

Media Contact
125 Broad Street
18th Floor
New York, NY 10004
United States

WASHINGTON — An anonymous letter-writer to the Washington Post vented recently about the Big Brother atmosphere in her job as an administrative assistant at a major hospital. After several months, she wrote, “I learned I constantly was being watched via a two-way mirror, my phone calls and voice-mail messages were being monitored, and my computer files were being reviewed.”

“It’s been so harassing and stressful, my hair has started falling out,” she told the Post. What’s worse, the writer said, personnel officers said that there was nothing they could do about it — because such workplace spying by an employer is legal.

Indeed, many people find it creepy to be watched unknowingly, the Post reported. In the workplace, however, surreptitious observation is increasingly common, particularly as tiny, concealed video cameras and inexpensive computer-monitoring software make it easier to observe workers without their knowledge.

Undisclosed observation seems to steam workers the most, the Post said. According to the American Civil Liberties Union’s Workplace Rights Project, this issue generates more work-related complaints to ACLU offices than any other.

“Workers get extremely upset when they find out they are being spied on,” said Jeremy Gruber, Legal Director of the ACLU’s Workplace Rights Project. “This isn’t some ‘Candid Camera’ stunt — it’s for real, and nobody’s laughing.”

Employees often call to find out what legal action they can take, but Gruber told the Post that no laws prevent such monitoring. The only exceptions are if employees are watched in the bathroom or a locker room — places, the courts have said, where people have an “explicit expectation of privacy.”

The American Management Association, whose members employ about one-quarter of the U.S. workforce, found in 1997 that about 35 percent of all firms reported monitoring employees in some way, including recording their telephone calls and e-mail or videotaping them.

According to the Post, when the organization repeated its survey in April, the number of firms electronically monitoring their workers jumped to 45 percent.

The practice is most common among financial services firms, the paper said, but these days, even some working parents use “nanny cams” on their baby sitters at home and at day care centers.

The AMA advises its members that, to be fair and preserve morale, they should inform workers of monitoring. AMA surveys found that four-fifths of employers do so.

“My best advice is for all workers is to conduct themselves as though they were being monitored and behave appropriately,” Gruber said.

Indeed, snoopware on the job is growing fast. If you use the company computer for lovey-dovey e-mail, sprucing up your resume or snapping up stocks through E*Trade, Big Browser may be watching. Read our previous newswire at /news/1999/w080299a.html.

Every month, you'll receive regular roundups of the most important civil rights and civil liberties developments. Remember: a well-informed citizenry is the best defense against tyranny.

Learn More About the Issues in This Press Release