`Cyber Police' Monitor The Workplace
`Cyber Police' Monitor The Workplace
By DIANE E. LEWIS c.1997 The 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
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
``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-morehigh-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
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.
In Massachusetts, for instance, employers might be held liable for reading
employees' e-mail unless workers have been told that they are being
monitored or if there is a legitimate business reason for the monitoring.
While the second limitation is probably broad enough to allow almost all
monitoring, employers are obligated to think about their motivation before
taking a peek.
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.
In Massachusetts, as anyone who has recently called a police station or
even a mutual fund company knows, an employer must alert both parties when
a telephone call is being monitored. But the law says nothing about e-mail
or voice mail.
To protect the privacy concerns of 1,500 union members employed by the
Social Security Administration's New England division, the American
Federation of Government Employees Local 1164 negotiated a provision in its
current contract requiring that management give workers prior warning of
telephone monitoring at least a week before initiating the reviews, said
Susan Conrad, executive vice president of Local 1164.
Even so, employees are better off assuming from the start that nothing is
private in the workplace, said Babson's Brown.
Carmen Brown (no relation to the above) learned that in June 1995. While
working at a Dunkin' Donuts franchise on Cape Cod, the 43-year-old sales
clerk discovered that a private conversation with a friend had been taped
in violation of the state's wiretap statute, which forbids taping or
eavesdropping without prior consent.
Angered by what had happened, Brown quit. ``This was a situation where
someone had told me something in strictest confidence and it was taped,''
she said. ``That bothered me.''
Dunkin' Donuts acknowledged that one of its franchises was using audio
equipment at the time and said the practice would be discontinued.
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
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.''
While most of the new technology is focused on watching on-the-job
behavior, off-the-job behavior has not been ignored. Particularly when
drugs are involved, employers have long argued that some of what a worker
does on his or her own time is the company's business, and technology is
making it easier to take a look at what Joe or Jane Worker did on the
At one time, most employers relied on urine testing to pinpoint drug use.
Today, Psychemedics Corp. in Cambridge, Mass. offers employers the ability
to screen hair samples for cocaine, PCP, methamphetamines and other drugs.
The new technology can trace drug use as far back as 90 days and, in some
cases, even longer. Standard urine tests, by contrast, can only test for
the presence of drugs in the body for a few days.
``We can even test for usage dating back further than three months because
every one-half inch of hair is about a month's worth of growth and drug
deposits wind up in the follicle of the hair,'' said Bruce Stillwell, vice
president, treasurer and controller. ``In fact, if you tested someone with
longer hair you could actually go back two or three years.''
Psychemedics recorded $10 million in sales in 1995, up from $4 million in
1992. Among its corporate clients: General Motors, Rubbermaid, and Federal
Reserve Banks in five cities, although not in Boston.
And smokers, beware: The company is considering the expansion of its
services to include screening tests for nicotine.
(The Boston Globe web site is at http://www.globe.com )