ANN ARBOR, MICHIGAN (TheStreet) -- Corporations are encroaching upon your privacy in more invasive ways than either the National Security Agency or the U.S. government.
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 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 methods: drug testing at corporate toilets, keystroke monitoring, phone eavesdropping and video monitoring.
Back then, I interviewed the late Senator Paul Simon (D-Ill.) 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; the workers would have been afforded access to information being collected about them as well as maintaining the ability to set limitations.
Some 20 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 cites, records of online searchers, all activity video cameras, all conversions with audio surveillance, smart-phone usage, and even use Global Positions Systems (GPS) 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 want 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 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.
"The real issue for employers isn't whether to monitor, but when and how," said Maltby. "If an employee reports that she has received sexually harassing email from a co-worker, any responsible employer will read relevant email messages as part of its investigation. The problem is that most employers place no controls on monitoring. 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. One IT tech told me, 'it's like being in a locked room with every else's diary; what do you expect us to do?'"
Maltby said that some monitoring is occurring when workers are not on the job.
"The other major issue is monitoring employees when they are off-duty," Maltby said. "Some employers use GPS to monitor company issued cell phones at all times, even during the employee's private life. There have also been occurrences of laptop webcams being secretly activated."
The courts and laws have generally not favored workplace privacy rights either in recent years.
"There are almost no laws protecting employee privacy," said Maltby. "Federal wiretapping law prohibits employers from deliberately eavesdropping on personal conversations that occur at work. 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. Most courts consider videotaping in locker rooms and bathrooms to be a common law invasion of privacy, but some courts have ruled against employees in such cases."
However, there are some actions workers can on their own take to protect their rights.
"Until recently, there was little employees could do to avoid being monitored, according to Maltby.
"Today there is," he said. "If you want to send someone a message confidentially, send it on a personal wireless device. Your employer doesn't have access to the towers, satellites, and computers involved in wireless transmission. Just be sure not to use the company WiFi."
--Written by Donna Iadipaolo for MainStreet