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Computer Monitoring In The Workplace and Your Privacy

Author: Anna Hinds BA (hons) - Updated: 24 August 2012 | commentsComment
Workplace Monitoring Computer Monitoring

Most companies monitor their staff in the workplace in some way. Sometimes it's done to ensure that procedures are correctly followed, sometimes to make sure workers are safe and healthy. But today's technology allows employers to monitor their employees in more depth than ever before. Computer monitoring is fast becoming a popular way for companies to obtain insights into just what employers do all day on their computers…

The History of Workplace Monitoring

Workplace monitoring has become more commonplace over the last decade. What started with smart cards that recorded workers' entry, exit and break times quickly grew to include CCTV, telephone eavesdropping, and even software that traces your every movement. The bigger the company, the greater the measures: some years ago it emerged that BP had installed 150 microphones in petrol stations and to listen to employees' conversations. BT made the news in 1999 when it was discovered that the company had hired a team of private investigators to test, monitor and even video employees, a real breach of privacy. These were unsubtle measures - and quickly overturned by shocked unions. Today, surveillance and monitoring is far more discreet: we can spot cameras on the roads and in stores, but we probably only see the half of it…

Is My Computer Monitored At Work?

It may surprise you to learn that you have no legal right to use your computer to access the internet or for private email for personal use at work. There's no law specifying that employers must allow you time for these activities. What the law does say is that everyone is entitled to respect for their private and family life, and this extends to the workplace, so you have a degree of privacy. That's how several people have won cases against employers who have videoed them. Even if you are monitored, it's likely that your employer would overlook a reasonable amount of time spent in private correspondence. But remember that some privacy is a privilege - not a right - and the law preventing employers from workplace computer monitoring is just as vague.

How Am I Monitored At Work?

Many workplace monitoring systems are permissible by law, although their use can sometimes be dubious by nature. Before setting up any systematic monitoring (software or trackers), employers are required by the Information Commission to consult staff and make their policy clear to all. And because computer monitoring has been shown to have negative effects on workers, employers are encouraged to find alternative ways to keep their staff working productively. But if you employer does decide to monitor your activity during work hours, they could use any of the following methods:

Smart Cards And Monitoring
Smart cards are used for accessing buildings and computer systems, which means your actions and movements are recorded. Smart cards leave a digital footprint, effectively 'signing' every document that you work with, and recording when you access the system, whichever network point you use, making them a very useful monitoring tool in the workplace.

Monitoring With Biometric Scanners
Popular in the US, biometric scanners recognise a thumb or fingerprint and record your movements and system usage in the same way as a smart card. In the States, biometric scanners are even used in schools, where young children can scan their thumb to pay for lunch - again a simple but effective monitoring device.

Computer software can be used to record your web activity (producing a log which your employer can later scan through), to provide external access to your email account (including everything you send and receive, even if you delete it), to take screen snapshots, to capture personal passwords, and to block banned websites. And unlike the other monitoring methods, this software can be run without your knowledge - it's virtually undetectable to the user, giving no privacy at all.

What To Do If You're Concerned About Workplace Monitoring?

If you're worried about being monitored, consider the following actions:

  1. Ask your employer to clarify their privacy policy: are your emails monitored when you're at work, when you're absent, if at all? Is personal internet use permissible, to what extent, and how will it be monitored? Your employer should provide a clear policy setting out the nature of any monitoring and (most importantly) exactly what is seen as a breach. For instance, most employers allow a certain amount of internet or email use provided it doesn't interfere with work; some have a simple 'no obscene site' ban.

  2. Request any personal data that your employer holds about you. Your employer is obliged to provide this information (with the exception of any references which were supplied when you took your position). Put your request in writing and - as long as the information is held on a file, reasonably easy to obtain and doesn't include confidential information on anyone else - your employer must provide a copy of the information to you within 40 days.

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