Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Workplace surveillance

Cyber Age
Brave new world of snoopy laptops
From The Statesman
By ND Batra

My networked laptop snoops on me, so does Google. I am not afraid because I have nowhere to go. In these fluid times, when earth is becoming flatter every day and jobs may be moved from one digital hub to another, one never knows where the axe might fall. Or who might run away with companies’ secrets. Since most office workers use the Internet and communicate via e-mail, bosses are watching closely how their employees use the company’s electronic resources, including what they save on their laptops.
Several court decisions regarding workplace privacy indicate that in the USA employees have few privacy rights over their e-mail, if it is stored in the company’s system. Employers no doubt have legitimate concerns, especially regarding the confidentiality of their trade secrets; ongoing contractual negotiations; pornography and sexual harassment messages exchanged among employees that might lead to legal liabilities for the company; and whistle-blowing and other activities that may affect the company’s reputation. These concerns are not new but the speed with which transactions are done on the Internet has created paranoia.
Survey been found that mployees also visit popular sports websites to check scores and also do online shopping and stock trading. Many of them keep the chatline or instant messaging service open while doing other work. Some multi-tasking in the workplace has always been there but the Web has created new opportunities and now it is becoming a common occurrence. With continuous restructuring and layoffs, many working people keep looking for new job opportunities.
Companies are watching who is applying for jobs and if anyone is trying to cross over to a competitor, he should not expect his boss to be merciful.
That was a painful lesson for Richard Fraser, a Pennsylvania independent insurance sales representative with Nationwide Mutual Insurance, who learned a few years ago when he offered his services to the company’s competitor by sending an e-mail job inquiry.
Though he was not the company’s salaried employee and had an independent office, he was using the company’s e-mail system and his computer was networked with the company’s server. In his lawsuit against his employer that he filed after he was fired, Mr Fraser alleged that the company had violated his electronic privacy right under federal laws, the Wiretap Act and Stored Communication Act, but the judge saw no merit in the case.
Sending or receiving an e-mail message leaves a copy on the company’s server, which is much like a filing cabinet, and the company has the right to scrutinise the content. It is important to understand, therefore, that e-mail is the least safe method if an employee wants to keep his online transactions confidential.
Blue Cross & Blue Shield of Michigan, a major health insurance company, fired seven employees in 1999 for violating the company’s policy and ignoring the written warning against e-mailing obscenities using the company’s computers. Discharging employees for sending pornographic pictures and sexual jokes to colleagues via e-mail is not something new.
When the bosses at First Union Corporation, one of the largest banks in the USA, wondered what was slowing down the company’s server, they discovered that some of the employees were e-mailing videos of people having sex and other lascivious materials that strained the system’s capacity.
The employees lost their jobs for violating the policy and no one shed tears for them. Employers cannot afford to ignore online lewd conduct of their employees, partly out of fear that some might perceive the company as tolerating hostile work environment and accuse it of gross negligence. But more importantly, such conduct destroys work ethics.
Ironically, as offline and online worlds collide and converge, workers do not regard the office as a place of work only. Nor is the home exclusively for the family. If a person is expected to carry his office on laptop to his home, why can’t he do his family chores in the office?
The question can’t be ignored because the number of people who telecommute and have their home computers networked to their office server is increasing.
So where does the right to privacy end for an employee when home and office leak into each other? That’s not the only dilemma of the workplace. Some employees need greater freedom and privacy than others. For example, idle banter on the company network might be conducive to creative behaviour and may have to be tolerated in places like schools, colleges, universities, media companies, newspapers, research institutions and others that value originality and creativity.
Graduate students and professors do a lot of work on university computers but that does not give universities the right to own their data stream or intellectual work. Nor does it give them the right to eat away their privacy rights and academic freedom.
Would putting all employees into the same digital straightjacket generate coercive environment? What would the effect be on productivity in the long run?
If monitoring is being done for measuring and evaluating efficiency, preventing fraud, protecting intellectual property and trade secrets, maintaining conducive workplace environment or whatever reason, the rational must be explained to employees and policy clearly laid out. Though courts favour employers at present, productivity lies in the hands of workers.

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