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Technology endangers privacy like never before

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© St. Petersburg Times, published January 3, 2001

That's a heck of a line to start a New Year of business columns. But it's the only sorry conclusion possible from a broad analysis of personal privacy invasions in the past year conducted by the Denver-based, non-profit Privacy Foundation.

In the workplace, employee privacy already was suspect at best. But now employee reliance on new technology, cheaper tools available to track workers, a growing corporate fear of liability and fixation on productivity, plus a lack of reasonable internal privacy policies at companies have combined to raise the ante.

The numbers are alarming. Two-thirds of major American companies now do some type of in-house electronic surveillance, according to the American Management Association.

Employee e-mails? About 27 percent of big U.S. companies monitor e-mail, up from 15 percent in 1997.

Employee voice-mails? Stored and reviewed by 11 percent of companies, up from 10 percent in 1997.

Employee phone calls? Many companies monitor outgoing phone numbers, and 11 percent of large U.S. companies even record and review calls.

Employee computer files? Reviewed by 21 percent of big companies, up from 14 percent in '97.

Employee physical movement? Video monitors are used by 16 percent of big companies to track performance and by 33 percent of companies to deter theft, violence and sabotage.

Employee keystrokes? Software is used by about 16 percent of companies to track what individual workers type on their keyboards. It does not matter if the content is later erased by backspacing.

Hard to say which came first: the lawyers warning companies of lawsuits if they allow their employees to do anything inappropriate, or the surge of new technology that lets companies monitor in ways never even imagined a few years ago.

If employees -- and their privacy rights -- are toast, at this rate they'll be lumps of burnt carbon in a few years.

Dozens of companies including Xerox, Dow Chemical, Northwest Airlines, Chevron, Compaq Computer and the New York Times Co. (plus such government agencies as the Central Intelligence Agency) fired and disciplined employees in 2000 because of alleged "bad behavior" in using the companies' e-mail or communications networks.

And it's not just the big guys. Most of Tampa Bay's city and county governments, as well as the Southwest Florida Water Management District, have fired or reprimanded employees for inappropriate use of the computer networks. St. Petersburg's city auditors periodically review employee computer records for pornographic activity.

So what do corporate managers, a.k.a. Big Brother to many workers, say about the U.S. industry's rush to watch?

Get used to it.

A survey of human resources professionals last month found strong concern about employee use of the Internet at work. And 74 percent of their organizations monitor use, largely because of worry over lost productivity and inappropriate behavior, said the survey by the Society for Human Resource Management and West Group.

Only information as personal as genetic and medical data, or credit checks, are considered truly private by the human resources managers. But the vast majority of HR pros had no problem about poking into employees' space via testing for drugs or monitoring workplace e-mail, Internet use and phone calls.

Keep in mind that workplace surveillance ranked No. 1 in the Privacy Foundation's Top 10 list of privacy incursions in 2000 (see Top 10 list, below).

Stephen Keating, executive director of the Privacy Foundation, says employers may be rightly concerned about security and productivity issues, or about legal liability arising from e-mailed sexual banter. But beware companies that go overboard by tracking employee keystrokes and voice-mail or using mini-video cameras. Those excesses will influence morale and labor law, as well as employee recruitment and retention practices, he said.

In the future, the foundation predicts that employers, especially so-called new economy companies, may offer "spy free" workplaces as a fringe benefit.

That may work in Silicon Valley, where workplace cultures are easygoing. But it may not play so well in the Tampa Bay area's more concentrated world of call centers and back-room processors, where employees tend to be tracked minute by minute and often must "log out" just to use the bathroom.

Remember the words of warning from Douglas Dahlberg, 31, whose job as a corporate information-technology manager in Georgia included investigating iffy use of the Internet by fellow employees.

"I tell people here, "You live in a democracy, you don't work in one.' "

Somebody pass the toast.

- Robert Trigaux can be reached at (727) 893-8405 or

Top 10 privacy issues of 2000

1. Workplace surveillance

2. Patient privacy rules

3. FBI's "Carnivore" e-mail interceptor

4. DoubleClick's profiling of Net surfers

5. Rise of chief privacy officers

6. Inconsistent privacy policies

7. Merging personal financial data

8. Wireless privacy battles

9. Microsoft cookie-blocking software

10. E-mails, Web activity sought in legal cases

Source: Privacy Foundation, Denver

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