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The Company is Watching You Everywhere
New York Times, February 15, 1987

By Gary T. Marx | Bio

CAMBRIDGE, Mass — The USG Acoustical Products company, based in Chicago, recently announced that employees at any of its nine manufacturing plants who smoke, whether at work or at home, might soon be out of a job unless they quit smoking. After a grace period of several months, the company said it would monitor employee health using a test that measures lung capacity, and any employees still believed to be smoking could be fired.

The company's actions appear to be in keeping with the spirit of advice given by Attorney General Edwin Meese 3d, who told corporate executives recently that management should "take its responsibility for surveillance" against drugs into locker rooms, parking lots and even nearby taverns.

These efforts are part of a broad shift in the nature of monitoring of workers by employers. As technological methods of surveillance become more powerful and less expensive, and as the social climate becomes more receptive, increased emphasis is being placed on monitoring workers, even when they are away from work, and the distinction between on- and off-duty behavior is narrowed.

Privacy historically has been protected, partly because data collection was limited to what the unaided senses could detect. Today's surveillance technologies easily go further. Monitoring of employees is no longer restricted to a bounded work setting, such as a factory or an office. Now electronic leashes track the activities of delivery and repair people who work in the field far from a central office. (Ironically, it was because of the greater freedom these jobs afford that many people have been drawn to them in the past.)

A small computer — aptly named Tripmaster — installed on the dashboard of a truck can record speed, gear shifts, how long the truck idles and how long a driver stops for lunch or a coffee break. Another device can track vehicle location via satellite.

Even within large industrial or office complexes, an employee's whereaboutscan be determined at all times. With the use of card key systems, the individual must check into and out of various work stations — including the parking lot, main entrance, a particular floor, a given office, a computer terminal and in some settings, even the bathroom.

Video and audio surveillance, once restricted to high security areas, are increasingly found throughout work settings. They are indiscriminate, catching whatever comes within their purview, whether work related or not.

This was sadly discovered by two workers who left a factory as their shift ended, engaged in a heated discussion. A fight ensued and a video camera in the parking lot recorded it. They were fired. The employees filed a lawsuit, arguing that their activity outside the factory gate was a private issue, no matter how irrefutable the company's "evidence." A judge later ordered them reinstated.

Union grievances have been filed over the use of electronic surveillance in employee lounges and bathrooms. In one case, the introduction of new electronic surveillance occurred during a union organizing drive.

Major changes are occurring in the monitoring of employee telephone communications as well. In most work settings, private use of telephones has been tolerated, much as the taking home of pencils. But with the development of a technique called station message detail recording, this is changing.

Extensive detail can easily be captured on phon usage — even to other extensions in the same building. Incoming calls can also be tracked.

The number of workers engaged in "telecommuting" (using computers and telecommunications at home) is also increasing. Interchanges with a central office serve to deliver a work product and also to monitor work. In such situations, it is difficult to determine where the factory or office stops and the home begins.

One program permits managers to observe on their own screen all input entered by an employee from his home and all output from the central computer to the user's terminal. Other programs are available to send subliminal messages or statements, such as "work faster."

From management's perspective, monitoring practices are generally seen as benign or even beneficial. They help contain costs, enhance security, improve producitivity and service, and equitably allocate rewards and penalties. Yet they can also backfire.

Electronic sweatshops are no more appealing than the other kind. One manufacturing firm found productivity declined and absenteeism, stress and turnover increased after a comprehensive monitoring system was installed.

Just because something can be done does not mean that it should be done. The precedent, once established, can lead to other forms of monitoring, such as watching what overweight people eat, tracing spending patterns of those chronically in debt or tracking employees who engage in high-risk sports. Once this is widely accepted, surveillance of religious or political beliefs could be next.

Our heterogeneous society and free market economy place a much higher value on separating the personal and economic realms than is the case with more corporatists states, such as Japan. The company town was distasteful, partly because its control extended far beyond the factory floor. It would be tragic if competitive and moralistic pressures lead to its reinvention through the use of electronic, biological or chemical surveillance.

Gary T. Marx, a professor of sociology at MIT, is writing a book on police undercover practices. He was raised and educated in Los Angeles.

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