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Cyber Police Keeping Tabs On Workers Monitoring Efforts Raise Questions About Privacy

Diane E. Lewis Boston Globe

This spring, a group of nurses at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center in Worcester will begin wearing badges with infrared sensors that can constantly pinpoint their whereabouts.

The idea is to see if the so-called “active badges” can reduce the time nurses spend on their feet and put them in contact with patients more quickly.

In fact, the sensor system is just one of many new high-tech tools that are transforming the workplace by making it easier for the boss to keep tabs on where workers are and what they are doing.

Boasting astounding power to increase efficiency, such equipment also presents potential new threats to workers’ privacy. It most certainly means a decrease in casual on-the-job “down time” such as chatting by the water cooler, surfing the Internet or making a stop at the donut shop during a delivery run.

“Information technology is becoming so sophisticated that workers’ lives are actually becoming transparent and their actions are being subjected to almost constant review,” says William S. Brown, a management professor at Babson College in Wellesley, Mass., who is researching a book on the topic.

Enjoyed that new computer game so much last night that you thought you’d try it at work? Better not. A software program can spot who’s playing computer games on company time. Worried about the e-mail message you sent to a co-worker that criticized the boss’s latest project? You ought to be. Your employer could be reading your e-mail right now.

The monitoring is not confined to the office. The trucking industry has been testing dispatching and communications systems using the satellite-based global positioning system. Using GPS devices, atomic clocks and in-the-truck computers, trucking managers back at a base can detect when a truck needs repair, when a driver veers off course or even when he or she stops to take a break.

“It used to be good enough that you did your job and got the truck back on time,” said Charlie Richardson, a former trucker who now directs the technology and work program at UMass Lowell. “Now, you are expected to be working at top capacity every single part of the day. Sure, it speeds up work. But it also takes out a lot of the down time or rest time a worker has. The other problem is this: The cyber police are looking over your shoulder all the time.”

To be sure, some of the new technology can help employers ensure workers’ safety. And it can be used to police generally accepted rules: For instance, most sexual harassment policies forbid the display of sexually explicit material; keeping workers off the Internet’s many pornography sites can help with enforcement. A variety of ever-more-high-tech monitoring equipment can prevent the theft of money or trade secrets - or at least locate the culprits after the fact.

The question is: Where do you draw the line? That’s a question UMass Medical Center and its nurses are grappling with as the center prepares to test the active badges.

“A lot of staff are concerned because they haven’t used the badge yet,” said Michael Bortone, a clinical engineer in the center’s biomedical engineering division. “They think: Big Brother - people will know where they are even if they are in the bathroom or cafeteria. But we see it as a labor-saving device, a tool to make nurses’ lives easier, not eavesdrop.”

Bortone said the center will limit the sensors to patients’ rooms and one station in each hallway. And a badge can be turned off by sliding it out of a holder. In other words, the hospital will not be timing nurses’ bathroom breaks.

Some companies have developed workplace policies that spell out exactly what information will be scanned or subject to monitoring by the employer and what is off limits. Legal and employment experts say that, in states with privacy laws, such policies can protect employers from liability by dispelling any expectation of privacy in areas that will be monitored.

Still, most companies have not yet made a systematic effort to define the limits of monitoring. According to a 1996 study by the Society for Human Resource Management, 80 percent of all businesses and organizations communicate through e-mail. Of those, only 34 percent have developed written workplace privacy policies covering the use of e-mail, voice-mail or the Internet.

Historically, federal courts have sided with employers when it comes to monitoring the use of company equipment such as telephones, voice-mail or e-mail, ruling that there is no constitutional guarantee of personal privacy by workers using the boss’s technology.

Not surprisingly, the push for greater efficiency and control over employees has spawned a billion-dollar industry that sports everything from software that can count keystrokes to sophisticated surveillance cameras.

For instance: If playing computer games at work crossed your mind, watch out. For $59.95, DVD Software Inc. of Irvine, Calif., could sell your employer software that scans, and then kills, files that share characteristics with the product’s database of more than 4,000 game titles. The product? AntiGame.

“If an employer is paying workers to work, they want to know that the job is getting done,” said company co-founder Donna Hollander, who says her customer base has increased from just a handful in 1995 to more than 1,000 today.

Admittedly, killing aliens on the computer monitor is probably not in most people’s job descriptions. But the effort to stamp out such apparently frivolous use of company time is not without its critics.

Emily Coleman, a market researcher whose Teaneck, N.J., company questioned game players about their habits in a 1995 study, says tracking game playing at work does more harm than good.

“No human being can sit at a desk and not take a break - ever,” she says. “By focusing on games, managers who like to micromanage feel important. But in the end, employees feel under the gun and that destroys productivity. Why? It treats people like robots.”

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