As the Internet has become an integral tool of businesses, company policies on Internet usage have become as common as policies regarding vacation days or sexual harassment. A 2005 study by the American Management Association and ePolicy Institute found that 76% of companies monitor employees' use of the Web, and the number of companies that block employees' access to certain Web sites has increased 27% since 2001 (1). Unlike other company rules, however, Internet usage policies often include language authorizing companies to secretly monitor their employees, a practicethat raises questions about rights in the workplace. Although companies often have legitimate concerns that lead them to monitor employees' Internet usage-from expensive security breaches to reduced productivity-the benefits of electronic surveillance are outweighed by its costs to employees' privacy and autonomy.
While surveillance of employees is not a new phenomenon, electronic surveillance allows employers to monitor workers with unprecedented efficiency. In his book The Naked Employee, Frederick Lane describes offline ways in which employers have been permitted to intrude on employees' privacy for decades, such as drug testing, background checks, psychological exams, lie detector tests, and in-store video surveillance.
The difference, Lane argues, between these old methods of data gathering and electronic surveillance involves quantity:Technology makes it possible for employers to gather enormous amounts of data about employees, often far beyond what is necessary to satisfy safety or productivity concerns. And the trends that drive technology--faster, smaller, and cheaper--make it possible for larger and larger numbers of employers to gather ever-greater amounts of personal data.
In an age when employers can collect data whenever employees use their computers--when they send e-mail, surf the Web, or even arrive at or depart from their workstations--the challenge for both employers and employees is to determine how much is too much.
Another key difference between traditional...