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Beware: Big Brother is watching you 

Excessive employee monitoring oversteps ethical boundaries

Opinion Graphics

Illustration by Kin Lui.

I used to attribute activites like constantly keeping track of another individual’s e-mails, phone calls, Web site visits and downloads to cyber criminals and stalker-like obsessive exes — until now.

I was amazed to find recently that more than three-fourths of all U.S. employers monitor their employees’ Web site visits in order to prevent inappropriate Web surfing. It was even more unnerving when I discovered that the law does not require that employers notify their employees that they are being monitored. So, if you use a company-owned computer or telephone at work, you should probably assume that your activities are being monitored.

By “being monitored,” I mean you are being watched like a hawk.

When I used to think of monitoring, I imagined real human beings (managers) or video cameras recording employee activities. Then I realized I was lagging way behind on my knowledge of new surveillance technology.

Today, an employer can watch your computer usage from their desk as if he or she was standing over your shoulder.

The latest software allows businesses to silently and undetectably install monitoring programs onto employees’ computers without physically touching them and watch anything the employees do while they do it.

They can see the Web sites you visit, obtain your usernames and passwords by recording keystrokes (including those for personal e-mail accounts and online banking or shopping), record your chats on any Web site, access current and deleted e-mails and phone messages, find any documents downloaded and/or deleted from your computer, locate transferred files, track your online searches and much more without so much as giving prior notice.

Doesn’t this seem a little excessive?

The primary reasons employers cite when justifying the need to monitor employees are arguments to improve employee productivity, have better security, less theft and other legal concerns. It is understandable that businesses would want to increase the productivity of their workers, and because they cannot trust their employees to always stay focused, some sorts of monitoring can be imperative to their success.

But research shows that there are many employers who have less than noble motivations for monitoring their employees — including union busting and avoidance, morality (for example, judging whether an employee might be homosexual), or pure curiosity and need for gossip. Since there are few restrictions on what employers can monitor, their intentions are hardly ever questioned.

A plethora of psychology literature and scholarly research challenge the effectiveness of employee monitoring. If employees know the extent to which they are being monitored, it is only expected that workplace morale would decline, as the lack of trust by the employer would diminish the sense of responsibility and loyalty.

And if it can be proven that such extensive supervision is in fact detrimental, there is little reason to monitor personal e-mails and chats. There are hardly any businesses that depend on such extensive monitoring of their employees to prevent theft and then, most businesses cannot justify such hawkish behavior.

If the argument is to raise productivity, monitoring is pointless unless the employee is notified of it, and even then, research questions this assumption. Productivity can be improved in other, more ethical ways like assigning more work, setting deadlines and motivating employees by fostering a better working environment.

If the argument is to prevent theft, monitoring of personal e-mails will hardly ever lead to a discovery of fraud (especially if the employee knows he or she is being monitored), as a closer watch on company accounts can provide the same information. Even if monitoring saves companies some money, the ethics being surrendered are hardly worth it.

It seems like the police are more regulated than our employers are — at least they need a search warrant or an extremely good reason to search us without consent. Exaggerated security reasons do not justify an employer having total rights to an employee’s personal information, especially without consent. If an employer has a good reason to suspect an employee, there should be restrictions, rules and a standard all employers must meet.

Employers eavesdropping and wiretapping without consent reminds me of former President George W. Bush’s excuses for the administration’s policies in the post-9/11 era. Security reasons do not trump privacy in all situations. Although security, for businesses as well as for our country, is important, there must be restrictions placed upon the extent to which rights can be eroded in times of necessity.

The law says that businesses have the right to monitor everything their employees do because work computers and work phones are employers’ property. As long as employees are using company property, their privacy is non-existent.

But consider this scenario proposed by the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University: It’s lunch hour. An employee writes a note to her boyfriend. She puts it in an envelope, affixes her own stamp and drops it in the basket where outgoing mail is collected. Does the fact that the pencil and paper she used belong to her employer give her boss the right to open and read this letter?

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