Privacy is dead. Get over it. So says Scott McNealy, former president Sun Microsystems.
He’s right. Workplace privacy is dead and buried. Employers can and do read e-mail, eavesdrop on telephone calls, monitor Internet access, and watch workers with hidden cameras (even in bathrooms and locker rooms). Virtually all of this is legal. Technically, employers aren’t supposed to listen to personal telephone calls, but it happens all the time and you have no way of knowing. Some judges have found bathroom cameras to be an invasion of privacy, but other judges allow it.
As bad as this is, it’s getting worse. Bosses are now spying on workers’ home lives. Millions of workers carry company-issued cell phones. Every one of these phones is equipped with GPS. The technology required to track cell phones is readily available and not very expensive. The cost of tracking an employee 24/7 is only $5 a month. Employers often keep GPS tracking a secret, or tell the workers they can turn off the GPS when they go home and continue to track them. The National Workrights Institute (NWI), has already begun receiving complaints about GPS.
Even more serious are the problems created by company-issued laptops. Employers usually tell workers it’s o.k. to use them for personal purposes as well as business. It’s presented as a perk—now you don’t need to buy your own computer.
What employers don’t tell you is that the company’s computer technicians look at your private documents when the computer comes in for upgrading or repair. Not only are your personal e-mail, photographs, and financial records revealed, but the techs tell your boss about anything they don’t like. If you say something negative about the company, tell risqué jokes, or make controversial comments about politics or religion, it can cost you your job.
If you think your boss wouldn’t fire you for something like this, think again. Heidi Arace was fired by PNC bank for telling an off-color joke by e-mail. Nate Fulmer lost his job because he criticized organized religion on his personal website.
The ultimate nightmare comes from webcams. If your company-issued laptop has a webcam, bosses can turn it on whenever they want. If they do it at night, they’ll probably see the inside of your house, maybe your bedroom. A suburban Philadelphia school district was recently caught turning on the webcams in laptops issued to students. Some were in the student’s bedroom.
Unionized workers have some protection against these abuses. While the law on GPS is still emerging, many labor lawyers believe GPS tracking is a mandatory subject of bargaining. Union members are also protected against arbitrary termination. It would be highly unlikely an arbitrator would uphold the termination of a worker who turned off the GPS when they went off duty. Nor would an arbitrator allow an employer to fire a union worker because they said something on their personal blog the boss didn’t like.
But for the rest of us, these practices are legal. Congress has been asleep at the switch when it comes to protecting privacy for the past 20 years. The last federal privacy law was enacted in 1986 and doesn’t even mention electronic communications other than telephone calls. Since then, advancing technology and employer abuse have eliminated any semblance of privacy at work. It’s time for Congress to wake up and take action before our private lives become an open book to employers as well.
Lewis Maltby is president and founder of the National Workrights Institute (NWI), a human rights organization committed to workplace issues, and author of the new book, Can They Do That?: Retaking Our Fundamental Rights in the Workplace.