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TheStreet Open House

Corporate Surveillance Really Is Out of Control

ANN ARBOR, MICHIGAN ( TheStreet) -- Corporations are invading your privacy in more invasive ways than either the National Security Agency or the U.S. government in general. 

Here's a bit of history to put it context.

In 1992, I wrote a article entitled Monster or Monitor? Have Tracking Systems Gone Mad? for the magazine Insurance & Technology. This was years before the graphic Internet had become an integral part of our lives.

At the time, people were shocked to learn that corporations were invading their employees' privacy through a variety of technological invasions: drug testing at corporate toilets, keystroke monitoring, phone eavesdropping, and video monitoring.

Back then, I interviewed the late Senator Paul Simon who was a workers' privacy rights advocate, and later, in 1993, introduced the Privacy for Consumers and Workers Act. This measure failed, but it shouldn't have. The legislation would have established standards for notice of privacy invasions to workers, access to information being collected as well as set limitations.

Over twenty years later, workplace monitoring is commonplace at nearly every company. And the kinds of monitoring have exploded as well.

Companies now routinely monitor phone calls, computer screens, voice mail, postal mail, email, postings on social media sites, records of online searchers, all activity on video cameras, all conversions with audio surveillance, smart-phone usage, and even use Global Positions Systems to track the whereabouts of employees while working and even off the job.

Proponents of such monitoring argue that workplace monitoring is good business. Companies want their employees to be productive. They don't them spending working hours surfing the Internet, playing computer games or buying items at Amazon (AMZN). Pushing that argument, it's no surprise that corporate demand for employee monitoring systems has never been higher.

SONAR, Spector CNE Investigator, iSafe, OsMonitor, IMonitor, Work Examiner, Net Spy, Acitivity Monitor, Mobistealth, and Spytech are just some products that allow companies to record online searches, monitor file downloads/uploads, record keystrokes, keep tabs on emails, create transcripts of chats, or take certain screenshots of images displayed on computer screens. Yet, invasion of privacy concerns are still prevalent.

Lewis Maltby, president of the National Workrights Institute, says the current environment has sparked a slew of legitimate concerns as some 94% of U.S. companies, according to a
Bentley School of Business Ethics survey, monitor their employees.

"Most employers say they give employees notice of monitoring, but they don't," Maltby said. "The typical 'notice' says that the company reserves the right to monitor anything and everything. Very few employers tell employees what they actually monitor or how they do it."

The fact is that monitoring systems can be abused. It may be reasonable, on the one hand, if an employee reports that she has received a sexually harassing email from a co-worker to then prompt an employer to sift through email records. Then again, maybe not. Such inappropriate email records could serve as evidence to an investigation and disciplinary action.

But this doesn't mean there should be no restrictions whatsoever on employee monitoring.

"The problem is that most employers place no controls on monitoring," Maltby said. "Any IT employee can monitor any other employee in the company for any reason without anyone's permission. IT employees privately admit that they routinely snoop on other employees for fun."

The idea that a employee's whereabouts would be tracked and recorded when not she is not on duty borders on the unconscionable. Keeping tabs on what a worker does in their own free-time is akin to monitoring a suspected felon or chronic sex offender. Tapping someone's home phone or private computer use on their company laptop is also highly suspect.

Nonetheless, the legal trend is that courts have not favored workplace privacy. 

"Federal wiretapping law prohibits employers from deliberately eavesdrop on personal conversations that occur at work," said Maltby. "This means little in practice; employees have no way of knowing if their employer is listening to a personal telephone call or has bugged the cafeteria."

Donna Iadipaolo is an award-winning journalist and educator. She lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

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