"Workers spend their shifts under the scrutiny of hidden video cameras, typing at computers with special software that allows supervisors to monitor everything from the number of errors made to how often breaks are taken."
Like many office workers across the country, Gail Nelson, a secretary in the Small Business Development Center at Salem (Mass.) State College, was in the habit of bringing to work an extra set of clothes to change into for the gym, the walk home, or a dinner engagement. At the end of the day, Nelson would be the last one in the office. The restroom, located a floor below, often was locked by then, so she would change behind a partition in the back of her storefront office. She sometimes used the divider to attend to other private needs as well. For example, "I recall I got a severe sunburn where I needed a prescription ointment, and I would go behind the divider and open my blouse and put it on."
What Nelson didn't know was that her activities--not just after work, but throughout the day--were being videotaped by a hidden camera. The only person who knew she was being taped was her boss. A co-worker who was changing lightbulbs one day in October, 1995, stumbled on the camera, lying on a newly installed shelf near the ceiling. He pulled the tape from it and watched the video with Nelson, who was shocked to see herself changing clothes. She later learned that the college had installed the camera in June of that year.
"At first, I was frantically thinking of a good reason why they would do it," she says. "We had a work-study student in our office who had been stalked by a neighborhood person and, since we were a storefront, a public office, he would come in and harass her. So I thought, maybe that's why the camera's up. But then I thought, why didn't they tell me that? What reason would be good enough not to tell me? I concluded that there was no reason good enough not to tell me they were taping the office unless it was about me."
Nelson has been an employee of Salem State College for eight years, although she now works in a different office. She has filed an intention to sue the college, alleging invasion of privacy. "I think the single most important thing Congress could do is require that, if an area is under surveillance, there should be a sign, a notice. People should know," Nelson maintains. "There are laws about how closely satellites can look at us, so everybody out on the street has better protection from surveillance by satellite than they do where they work."
"Apparently, the college thought someone was using the building after hours doing computer work or Xeroxing," notes Jeffrey Feuer, Nelson's attorney. "To catch this person, they began videotaping 24 hours a day." Feuer, who has represented other victims of workplace privacy invasion, explains that companies have a greater need to control their employees today and that spying on workers is increasing. Part of that effort involves using videotapes with no sound to get around the laws restricting wiretaps and eavesdropping. "In terms of videotaping, that's a loophole in our surveillance laws. There are no Federal laws on it. As long as they use video and are not capturing sound, they are not covered by the eavesdropping and wiretaps statutes."
It is not only legal loopholes that work to employers' advantage in monitoring their workers. One of the few laws affecting workplace privacy, the Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986, contains language that explicitly guarantees employers the right to listen in on workers' telephone calls--an action that would be a crime if anyone except an employer did it.
Most people assume that Federal laws protect Americans from being spied upon in the workplace. To the contrary, over the years, Congress has rejected legislation spelling out basic privacy protections for employees. In fact, in many ways, employers have leeway to scrutinize Americans routinely to an extent that even police can't, unless they first go to court and obtain a warrant. A 1997 survey by the American Management Association of 906 large and medium-sized companies found that 35% of the respondents occasionally used some form of electronic surveillance on their employees. Workers spend their shifts under the scrutiny of hidden video cameras, typing at computers with special software that allows supervisors to monitor everything from the number of errors made to how often breaks are taken. Their phone calls may be eavesdropped upon and their e-mail messages and the content of their computer hard-drives perused. Moreover, the scrutiny extends beyond on-the-job activities. Employees may be compelled to give urine samples for drag screening or submit to psychological testing, and their credit histories and health records are accessible to their employers as well.
"The question we ask ourselves is: How are these abuses possible? Isn't this America? I thought we had a right to privacy," Lewis Maltby, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Workplace Rights Project, told the House Education and Labor Subcommittee on Labor-Management Relations in 1993. "And the answer when it comes to the workplace is no, there is no right to privacy. The confusion that arises comes because when people think about the right to privacy, what they are really thinking about is the right to privacy found in the Federal...