Electronic Surveillance in the Workplace

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Electronic surveillance in the workplace

Electronic Surveillance in the Workplace:
Concerns for Employees and Challenges for Privacy Advocates

Anna Johnston and Myra Cheng

Paper delivered 28 November 2002 International Conference on Personal Data Protection Hosted by Personal Information Dispute Mediation Committee, Korea Information Security Agency Seoul, Korea

Ms Anna Johnston is the NSW Deputy Privacy Commissioner. Ms Myra Cheng is a Research & Policy Officer with Privacy NSW, the Office of the NSW Privacy Commissioner. The authors gratefully acknowledge the assistance of Dr Ben Searle, Macquarie University, in providing an overview of the relevant literature from the field of organisational psychology.

Introduction

This paper takes up the challenge of talking about privacy in the workplace - a site of potential conflict in which there may be co-existing radically different views on whether workers can or should have any expectations of privacy.

As long as there has been employment, employees have been monitored. Nebeker D M & B C Tatum, "The effects of computer monitoring, standards and rewards on work performance, job satisfaction and stress" (1993) 23(7) Journal of Applied Social Psychology 508 at 508. However, in recent years, with an environment of affordable technology, the availability of less easily observable or detectable monitoring devices, and a lack of adequate regulation, there has been an explosion in the use of electronic monitoring and surveillance in the workplace. A recent study by the American Management Association (AMA) found that almost 80% of the largest companies in the US had engaged in some form of electronic surveillance over the previous year. American Management Association, Workplace Monitoring and Surveillance Survey, (New York: 2001). This figure is more than double the rate recorded only five years ago: 35.3% in 1997. Ibid. Yet for some years now, concerns have been raised about the negative impact of electronic surveillance on employees and, by default, their employers.

The paradox of electronic surveillance in the workplace is that it is much used and little understood. Vorvoreanu M & C H Baton, Examining Electronic Surveillance in the Workplace: A Review of Theoretical Perspectives and Research Findings, Paper from Conference of the International Communication Association, June 2000 (Acapulco, Mexico) at 3.

For Privacy NSW and its predecessor, the NSW Privacy Committee, In 1998, the Privacy and Personal Information Protection Act (NSW) abolished the NSW Privacy Committee and replaced it with a statutorily independent Privacy Commissioner. The Office of the Privacy Commissioner is know as Privacy NSW. the issue of workers’ privacy has long been a concern. We have published three research reports Privacy Committee of New South Wales, Invisible Eyes: Report on Video Surveillance in the Workplace (Sydney: 1995), Privacy Committee of New South Wales, Drug Testing in the Workplace (Sydney: 1992), Privacy Committee of New South Wales, The Privacy Aspects of Employment Practices in the Private Sector: Employment Guidelines, (Sydney: 1979). and advocated for law reform to protect employees’ privacy rights. Workplace privacy has been of particular concern to us because vast amounts of personal information are passing into corporate hands where it is far more comprehensive, detailed (although not necessarily accurate), intrusive and difficult to challenge than information held by the state.

Currently, workplace practices which may affect employee privacy fall into four categories: (i) monitoring and surveillance; (ii) physical and psychological testing (including pre-employment testing, drug-testing and the use of DNA data); (iii) searches of employees and their property; and (iv) the collection, use and disclosure of workers’ information. Victorian Law Reform Commission, Workplace privacy: issues paper (Victoria: 2002) at xii. Monitoring and...
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