Monitoring On The Job: How to Protect Privacy as Well as Property
(Technology Review,Nov.-Dec. 1986)

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By Gary T. Marx And Sanford Sherizen

A large manufacturing company hid microphones in the bathrooms of one of its plants in an effort to ferret out drug sales at work. The microphones were accidentally discovered, and the local union complained, claiming violation of a basic privacy right. Management defended the action as part of a program to eliminate drug use at work.

A bank conducted a random check of an employee's microcomputer and found a file of personal letters and a program for preparing income tax forms. The employee was warned to use the company's computer only for company business. The employee felt that her privacy had been invaded: it was as if the company had looked in her desk or purse and told her what could and could not be there.

Two workers left a factory as their shift ended, engaged in a heated discussion. A fist fight ensued, and a video camera designed to protect the company's parking lot recorded the fight. The employees were later fired. They protested that their activity outside factory gates was a private matter. A judge agreed and ordered that they be rehired.

The monitoring of workers is hardly a new phenomenon. Indeed, it has always been the responsibility of supervisors to watch workers. From the very beginning, factory systems were designed to facilitate managerial control. With the rise of mass production and the spread of the "scientific management" ideas of Frederick Taylor, jobs were divided into their smallest components. Time and motion studies were done to establish work standards and quotas. However, even then monitoring was essentially personal. It relied on individual supervisors, and workers were likely to know when they were being watched.

In many ways, contemporary monitoring is a continuation of Taylorism. But new developments in electronic technology are taking that ethos to new heights (or lows, depending upon your point of view). The monitoring of employees is increasingly being done by machines. Much more is being monitored, and the monitoring has expanded from the production line to the office.

People may not know they are being watched. Furthermore, monitoring is no longer restricted to a bounded work setting such as a factory or an office. It can be done anytime, day or night, and from a location far removed from the actual work setting. Thus, an employee using a company computer at home can be observed, and a simple electronic transmitter can monitor the movement of people and vehicles far from the central office. Traditional social and legal protections are not as clearly applicable.

U.S. managers are under increasing pressure to monitor and improve productivity. Many companies also share a growing concern about product security and employee theft. Manufacturing processes and electronic systems for transmitting data and transferring funds are far more complex than they used to be, increasing the potential for costly abuses and errors. Rising concern over drug use at work, AIDS, and escalating health insurance costs also exerts pressure on managers to conduct more intensive screening and monitoring.

As a result, the concept of privacy itself is changing. In the name of improving company security and enhancing worker productivity, intrusions that would have been questioned or rejected in the past are now being accepted. The boundaries between acceptable and unacceptable intrusions are less clearly drawn. Where is the line between on- and off-duty behavior? When does the factory or office stop and the home begin? In the future, we may even have to confront questions about the right to control brainwaves and other biometric indicators thought to be relevant to work.

American companies today are at a crossroads. They can use new electronic technologies to increase their control over worker behavior and reinforce traditional patterns of nonparticipatory management. But such efforts will erode individual rights to privacy and may cause psychological stress and reduce productivity. Fortunately, companies can use the new monitoring technologies in a restricted fashion, recognizing that just because an intrusive form of monitoring can be done does not mean it should be done. With employee participation in setting standards and fair guidelines, some monitoring can even enhance privacy, security, and productivity.

The Value of Privacy

Privacy is not a simple concept with only one meaning. It embodies a variety of meanings and expectations. For instance, most Americans expect that an individual's behavior will not be observed, monitored, or recorded without that person's consent They expect not to have to divulge personal information that is not directly relevant to the issue at hand. And they expect that the information they do divulge will be treated confidentially and not used in unexpected ways. Laws and administrative rules often tend to support these views.

But why is privacy so important in the first place? Privacy is an essential component of individual autonomy and dignity. Our sense of liberty is partly defined by the ability to control our own lives- whether this be the kind of work we undertake, who we choose to associate with, where we live, the kind of religious and political beliefs we hold, or the information we wish to divulge about ourselves.

Control over personal information is particularly important for our sense of self. When an individual's room, pocketbook, or body can be searched at will, when conversations and even thoughts are available for instant inspection by outsiders, openness and honesty lose their value. Distrust becomes institutionalized and an important and even sacred element of the social bond is damaged.

In practice, of course, privacy is not easy to protect. The privacy rights of different individuals or groups sometimes conflict. For instance, an employee's right to keep personal certain information about his or her health conflicts with an employer's interest in knowing about health conditions that may affect performance and medical insurance costs. An employee's right to know about hazardous conditions at work may conflict with an employer's right to protect proprietary information.

The issue is also complicated by the fact that privacy rights depend heavily on context. Intrusive behavior considered acceptable on the job is not always acceptable off-duty. Police wiretapping of suspected drug dealers with a warrant is one thing; employers wiretapping employee telephone calls is quite another. A supervisor watching employees on an assembly line is not likely to be questioned But the use of a hidden camera and bug to gather equivalent data is. There are few, if any, forms of intrusive behavior that all people would agree are always illegitimate.

The Maximum-Security Workplace?

In a less technological age, our expectations about privacy were defined partly by what the unaided senses-sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch-were capable of detecting. The traditional physical boundaries of the workplace offered other limits to the gathering of information. Today's monitoring technologies easily transcend traditional barriers to data collection. Since monitoring is increasingly done automatically by machines, supervisors are no longer limited to what they can immediately observe. Nor are workers always able to know when they are being monitored. Phone systems designed as intercoms or paging devices permit managers to listen to conversations in other offices without being detected. Even in the few cases when union contracts or state laws require that notice of monitoring be given, workers will not necessarily know when the monitoring is being done.

Compare, for example, a video camera or video recorder with the traditional supervisor who occasionally walks by. Workers usually know when the supervisor is present. They also know that the monitoring is episodic-the supervisor can't be everywhere all the time. In contrast, camera and recorder are omnipresent and tireless; the worker can never be sure whether they are in operation or if their results will be reviewed. Moreover, in the past, the economics of monitoring tended to work against intensive mass surveillance. But technological breakthroughs have greatly reduced the cost of monitoring. Some companies are even using satellite technology to pinpoint the location of their trucks on a television screen.

Furthermore, monitoring devices with built-in microprocessors can now be made very small. This means that they can be placed in hidden locations and activated from distant places. By installing a tiny pinhole lens and video on the plane, for instance, it is possible for people on the ground to see and hear all activity on an aircraft up to 200 miles away. The market for such security products is expected to grow from $774 million in 1985 to $2.1 billion by 1992.

Workers increasingly participate in their own monitoring-even though such participation may be unwilling or unconscious. Technical devices automatically record data that workers generate: they capture information from the workers' voices or movements such as keystrokes or assembly line actions, and they measure workers' effectiveness by monitoring security and quality-control systems. In data-processing jobs, for instance, the devices monitor the number of errors and corrections made, the speed of work, and time away from the desk. One Bank of America vice-president, commenting upon the 200 criteria he uses to assess productivity among workers in his credit-card division, notes: "I measure everything that moves."

The workers most likely to be monitored are those who use computers for telecommunications, word processing, programming, and service contacts. Companies such as AT&T, United Airlines, Equitable Life Insurance, and American Express use sophisticated devices to regularly monitor their employees.

Take, for instance, the development of a technique called station message detail recording (SMDR). Telephone systems often have built-in SMDR features that record on what telephone each call is made, what user identification code and extension is used, where the call goes, what time it is made, and how long it lasts. SMDR systems generate detailed reports that management can use for planning budgets, allocating and controlling costs, and monitoring activities. Among the functions that can be monitored are toll calls made after official business hours and telephone use during lunch hours. Employees who use the telephone to make personal calls can readily be identified, as can employees who leak information to the press or to competitors. Calls from one extension to another within the company can also be monitored. New developments in software also make it possible to capture the content of a conversation, although this is much less frequently done.

The monitoring of telephone communication is likely to become pervasive. In 1985, 20,000 SMDR and related systems were sold in the United States, and that number is likely to grow. As one airline company executive put it, "Communications performance monitoring is going to be one of the major computer service fields in the next 5 to 10 years."

Thanks to other advances in software, employers can monitor employees working on microcomputers from the time they log on to the time they log off. One software product now on the market allows management to document the activities of anybody using the company computer system-without the user's knowledge. With the program, marketed by Clyde Digital Systems of Provo, Utah, and called "CNTRL," managers can observe on their own screen all input entered by the employee and all output from the computer to the user's terminal as it occurs. It can also be captured in a log, "creating a certifiable record to be used for disciplinary or legal proceedings," as the company's literature promises.

Software companies have even developed programs that allow employers to tell workers how their productivity compares with that of their co-workers. One program can be used to display messages on the video display terminal such as: "You are not working as fast as the person next to you."

A report by 9 to 5, the national organization of working women, describes a program called "The Messenger" that can be called up by the VDT operator. Calming images of mountains and streams are displayed along with subliminal messages such as "My world is calm." More ominous are subliminal programs that the worker may have no knowledge or control over. One such program entitled "Subliminal Suggestions and Self-Hypnosis" permits management to send any kind of message-such as "relax," "concentrate," or "work faster"-unbeknownst to the worker. The messages pass so quickly in front of the watchers' eyes they cannot be consciously detected.

Your Retinal Pattern or Your Life

Information security is a growing priority for many companies, particularly those involved in complex electronic fund transfers or confidential communications. The ability to gain remote access to computer systems had long posed a security problem, largely because both hackers and those with much less technical knowledge have found ways to bypass traditional precautions such as passwords and special cards.

To prevent unauthorized use, security firms are now developing biometric identification products for the commercial marketplace. These are based on the sensing of individual character-istics such as fingerprints, handwriting, voice, typing rhythms, hand geometry, and the distinct patterns of people's retinas. Personal Identification News magazine estimates that private companies spent more than $35 million in 1985 to develop biometric products.

These products can indeed improve the ability of federal agencies and private companies to limit access to top-security data. But they are also being used as a substitute for other managerial controls and supervision. A leading hotel, for example, used retinal-pattern identification to prevent workers from punching in one another's timecards. And a growing number of organizations ranging from Avis, Con Edison, and Equitable Life Insurance to the Universities of Tennessee and Georgia use hand geometry to identify employees.

The new technologies, of course, may bring greater equity. After all, "pre-technological" monitoring by a human supervisor sometimes meant highhanded or discriminatory treatment. Technological monitors have no favorites; all workers are treated alike. Because so many parameters of job performance can now be monitored, the total result might be a fairer system. Furthermore, monitoring can extend up as well as down the organizational hierarchy. Video cameras, card key systems required to enter a room, and computer access codes make demands on all who encounter them.

However, intrusive monitoring may conflict with workers' traditional expectations of what is fair on the job. There is, of course, no formal protection for the privilege of whispering at work or of being free from observation. But most of us feel entitled to a sense of privacy in our communications at work. The new technologies are threatening that privacy and-for some workers-making it obsolete.

The use of biologically based technologies could jeopardize people's privacy off as well as on the job. Workers have already been fired from their jobs when drug tests have revealed evidence of marijuana use, even though the drug was used at a weekend party and job performance was not in question.

When Deception Becomes the Rule

The increased use of monitoring in the workplace could well backfire. People are wonderfully ingenious at finding ways to disrupt, distort, and deceive monitors. For example, typists may hold one key down to increase the number of key strokes recorded. They can always delete the file containing the errors later. Telephone reservation agents may learn to avoid calls that add to their average case time by either disconnecting the call or simply withholding information. And workers required to provide urine samples may add chemicals that distort the test results or even turn in someone else's urine.

Monitoring may also create more adversarial relationships in the workplace. Workers may feel violated and powerless in the face of the new monitoring technologies. The result could be low morale, reduced productivity, and destructive countermeasures. Monitoring may even increase the violations or abuses it is intended to stop. Workers may feel challenged to beat the system or react out of anger and estrangement. When people feel they are not trusted, they often adopt an attitude similar to that of some police regarding corruption: "If you've got the name, play the game." In other words, as long as everyone thinks that you will take graft, you might as well do it.

One truck driver for the Safeway Co. with 40 years of experience recalled that he used to love his job because "you were on your own-no one was looking over your shoulder. You felt like a human being." But now a small computer on the dashboard of his truck (with the apt name of Tripmaster) keeps track of speed, shifting, excessive idling and when and how long he stops for lunch or a coffee break. As a result, the driver says he will retire early. He complains, "They push you around, spy on you. There's no trust, no respect anymore."

No comprehensive information exists on how technological monitoring affects productivity, but anecdotal evidence shows that overly zealous monitoring can be counterproductive. One large Midwestern electronics company for instance, found that productivity declined and absenteeism, stress, and turnover increased after a highly touted monitoring system was installed. The company eliminated the system within the year. The employees may have reacted like the directory-assistance operator who couldn't understand why her company had started monitoring her: "I worked all those years before monitoring. Why don't they trust me now? I will continue to be a good worker, but I won't do any more than necessary now."

Increased monitoring can breed other problems as well. The emphasis on quantity at the expense of quality may result in an inferior product. With monitoring, employers can automatically speed up the work process so it is no longer in the employees' control. Also, to the extent that electronic supervisors displace people, the potential for growth and learning on the job may be diminished. Less contact with a supervisor may mean a more impersonal, less satisfying work environment.

New types of monitoring may also disrupt understandings between labor and management. The technologies may eliminate activities that workers have traditionally taken for granted as "perks" of the job. For instance, many employees (and enlightened employers) equate the custom of keeping personal letters in an office computer with the tradition of taking home paper and pencils. Yet under the new form of monitoring, such previously "tolerated" behavior may no longer be accepted.

Surveillance also has a tendency to expand. Under the Reagan administration, government agencies have already begun monitoring their employees extensively, and further monitoring is planned. Polygraph testing, once restricted to top-secret matters of national security, is now applied to leaks to the press. In an effort to stem such leaks, some government agencies also monitor employee phone use. One new computer program even compares a list of calls with reporters' phone numbers. Concern about employee drug abuse has led President Reagan to urge drug testing of many government employees as well as employees of government contractors.

There is another reason for making sure technological monitoring in the workplace does not get out of hand: monitoring could become much more extensive in society at large. Practices developed at work can easily spill over into other areas. The new biometric forms of identification are one example. The more widespread this practice becomes in the workplace, the easier it will be to create a mandatory national ID system.

A Permanent Class of Undesirables?

Another danger is that monitoring-in the form of pre-employment screening-may help create a class of permanently unemployed and underemployed people. Because traditional records systems were inefficient, many people, particularly those who had been imprisoned, were given a second chance. In the old days, moving to a frontier town meant the opportunity to start over. But this traditional freedom may be severely constricted as credit institutions and other organizations gather comprehensive databases on U.S. citizens and sell them to other companies. The past becomes haunting: there is no second chance.

An increasing number of database companies gather and sell information to prospective employers on everything from an individual's political activism to the filing of worker compensation claims. These companies are relatively unregulated in their use of the databases. One factory worker was fired from a new job after his employer checked with a private computer network that tracked such claims. The employee had filed two claims for minor injuries (such as a broken finger) with previous employers and had collected modest compensation.

Many companies also use written tests to screen out job applicants. The Knight-Ridder newspaper chain, which owns the Miami Herald and thePhiladelphia Inquirer, routinely requires applicants for reporting positions to take a battery of written tests designed to reveal their personality traits and philosophical views.

Other forms of monitoring-such as genetic screening-could eventually be used to discriminate against individuals not because of their past but because of statistical expectations about their future. People who carry antibodies to the AIDS virus but have not developed the disease are already being discharged from the U.S. military and isolated or fired from other jobs. Scientific advances are making it increasingly possible to identify the genetic traits that predispose people to widespread diseases such as diabetes and heart disease.

Eventually, the work force may become divided between people thought to be good risks and others. Not only would this create an enormous waste of human resources as people are locked out of jobs for which they are otherwise qualified, but some of these people could turn to crime to support themselves. The demands on the welfare system would certainly expand.

Omnipresent monitoring will almost certainly chill political and social expression. Security and control may be enhanced but at the cost of a less creative and dynamic society. If American democracy is to be destroyed, it is unlikely to happen by sudden catastrophic events. Rather, it will occur by slow, incremental changes defined in benign terms. As Justice Louis Brandeis said, "The greatest dangers to liberty lurk in insidious encroachment by men of zeal, well-meaning but without understanding."

Using Technology to Enhance Privacy

Monitoring need not always mean invading some aspect of privacy. In some cases, technological monitoring is actually less intrusive than direct human monitoring. Electronic monitoring of hand luggage at airports eliminates the need for direct searches of passengers" purses and persons. The use of electronic markers on library books and consumer goods also makes costly and demanding physical searches unnecessary.

New technologies can also be used to reduce the need for monitoring and protect privacy. Monitoring in some ways is an admission of the potential for a system to fail. One watches because things can go wrong. However, work situations can be structured so that violations, abuses, and errors are less possible. Under these conditions, technological developments can enhance privacy.

For instance, data encrypted on fiber-optic telecommunications lines are clearly more secure from unauthorized use than information left in a desk drawer or file cabinet. Telephones can be designed to allow users to dial only local calls, eliminating the need to monitor for long-distance abuse.

Access keys or codes for using computers and copying machines reduce the need for visual surveillance. Before such systems were developed, supervisors had to watch who was using copying machines and m some cases resort to informers to locate abusers. Where once telephone company staff had to listen to conversations to verify the quality of connections, technical developments now make it possible to do this without listening in on voice communications.

In the future, "smart cards" containing personal data carried by everyone may eliminate the need for central databases, returning us to an earlier period when personal data were much more in the possession and control of the individual. In one inexpensive "smart card" system, laser technology is used to encode and read a wallet-sized card that contains up to 800 pages of information. The information on such cards is constitutionally protected from unauthorized use-which is not the case for records held by a third party such as a bank. However, backup copies would have to be made, creating the potential for abuse. Furthermore, if carrying such cards became mandatory, they might well seem more Orwellian than central databases.

Even technologies that have the potential to invade privacy may have positive benefits for employees. Some workers welcome close monitoring when it is tied to a system of merit pay. The permanent records from monitoring can also protect the innocent from false accusations and document violations by the guilty. Video cameras designed to prevent theft from loading areas may increase safety in adjacent parking lots. And drug screens may prevent accidents and protect the health of employees.

Establishing a Code of Ethics

Given the new technologies' wide range of advantages and disadvantages, how best can we manage their use? Companies should begin by analyzing why they want to institute monitoring. For instance, will the monitoring be a direct part of the work process, or will it be added on-a procedure apart from the work process such as a drug screen?

Most monitoring technologies can be applied in a number of ways. A video monitor can be hidden or visible, operated randomly or only when a light is on. Drug testing can be based on an inexpensive and relatively unreliable test or the opposite. Drug tests, polygraphs, and other forms of inspection can be general or specific, scheduled or random.

Given the variety of instruments, uses, and contexts, sweeping generalizations about monitoring technologies are inappropriate. In general, however, privacy is best protected when monitoring is minimally intrusive, is directly relevant to job performance, and is visible-i.e., a supervisor is walking by or a video camera has a flashing red light that indicates it is on. Highly intrusive forms of checking that are not directly related to work output should be restricted to situations where there are some grounds for suspicion.

A code of ethics does exist among certain manufacturers and vendors of monitoring technology. For example, AT&T, which provides telephone companies equipment for checking phone lines, requires subscribers to agree that they will use it solely for quality control and training. AT&T also requires that employees be notified in writing that they will be subject to such monitoring.

Some firms ask employees to help establish behavioral norms at work and thus cut down on the need for monitoring. For example, some companies have instituted programs whereby, if losses from employee theft are less than the previous year, employees split the money saved. Following a widespread practice in Europe, a few U.S. companies have agreed to use work monitoring only for group, rather than individual, output.

As the new monitoring technologies become pervasive and affordable, however, misuses are bound to increase unless clear guidelines are developed. Our work in analyzing and developing information-security and privacy programs for companies and government agencies has made it clear that legislation and company policies must:

In sum, technology is neither the enemy nor the solution. More and more U.S. companies are turning to monitoring devices to increase their control over employee behavior and improve internal security. But thus far, society has paid insufficient attention to protecting individuals' rights. The U.S. government and the private sector must work together to make sure that in our haste to protect our property, we do not destroy our basic freedoms.

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