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US Employee Privacy Debate - 2002-01-26

The fourth amendment of the U.S. Constitution protects citizens against unreasonable searches and seizures, thereby guaranteeing them the right to privacy. But while that right may be guaranteed in private life, it does not apply in public places, and, increasingly these days, it does not apply in the work place.

Employers argue that if they are paying for eight hours' work, then they have the right to make sure their employees work during those eight hours.

As a result, in many U.S. offices today, including those at the Voice of America, workers logging on to their computers are greeted with a warning: "This computer system is owned by your employer," it says, "You should have no expectation of privacy in using it."

Jack Palmer, the head of an Internet monitoring company, believes such warnings are justified.

After all, he says, according to a recent poll, most employees spend 75 minutes a day, or six hours a week, on non-work related activity on the Internet. "The average employee today, with insurance benefits and so forth, makes about $20 an hour," he says. "So if you were to take a company of 100 employees that spend 75 minutes a day on non-work-related surf activity on the Internet, that relates to over $600,000 a year in lost productivity."

If modern technology, namely the Internet, is providing new kinds of distractions for workers, however, modern technology is also offering employers new ways to monitor what their workers do.

No one knows that better than Jack Palmer whose firm, aptly named "I Caught You", helps companies find out exactly what their employees are doing on office time. "We provide a management information system that allows managers of a company to see Internet use reports by location, department, and end user within a company, as well as capturing both sides of all chat conversations from instant messaging that would be going on inside a company," he says.

But University of Massachusetts political science professor Philip Melanson worries about the speed at which such monitoring technologies are evolving. "We have within the last ten years invented technologies that are really out of sight compared to anything previously, not only capable of monitoring what people do on the net (Internet), but there are now spy satellites, which can lift several million electronic messages, whether they be phone or e-mail, or whatever, from Europe and the United States every few minutes," he says.

Once we start monitoring office employees, Mr. Melanson asks, where will we stop?

What is more, he says, spying takes time, too. How much productivity is lost when employers devote both time and money to monitoring their employees?