What Workplace Privacy Will Look Like In 10 Years

New laws like Europe's "right to be forgotten" in Google search are just the latest examples of how quickly perceptions and practices about personal privacy in the workplace are changing.

David Melnick, Founder & CEO, WebLife Balance

June 19, 2014

5 Min Read

Ralph's pajamas gently vibrate him awake. While he is still in bed, he gestures into the air, bringing up a computer interface woven into his pajamas. With a swipe of his hand, he opens his personal space and checks his biometric dashboard to find out how many steps he needs to walk today to reach his weight loss goal and whether his cholesterol has dropped.

After a quick shower, he gets dressed, accessorizing with his smart computing vest, which automatically starts his ultra-dark roast coffee brewing the moment he puts it on. A father of three, he gestures to open his private family view, which is showing live video feeds of his kids waking up. Interrupted by an alert from his car about traffic delays, he grabs a cup of coffee and heads for the garage, where he slides into his car office, closes his personal spaces with a gesture, and opens his business calendar to prepare for work.

Futuristic? Not so much.

This view of increasingly blurred "personal" and "work" places, spaces, and time will shortly be upon us. This reality will continue to challenge our notion of personal privacy, especially in the workplace.

The history of privacy at work
In the mid-1990s, employees began to gain Internet access at work. Eventually, Internet use became mission critical for nearly every job. Everyone was expected to have Internet access on their work computer, and before the end of the decade, they did. As people became able to shop, check bank balances, and pay bills online during working hours, the convergence of personal and professional lives accelerated, leaving employers to balance individuals' privacy concerns against increasing risks from employees' use of the Internet, such as productivity distractions, liability issues, and cyber security threats.

Then came 9/11, and overnight, employers shifted their focus from seeking balance to managing security and other risks. In the past decade, the proliferation of social media, cloud technology, and mobile access to the corporate network has led to increasingly invasive monitoring and controls, which has resulted in the beginnings of a global privacy backlash.

In the last 20 years, technology advancements have enabled unprecedented sophistication in social and personal communications, allowing us to have more personalized interactions at work. This is great, but our view of privacy has not adapted to this new reality, nor have we established any clear expectations of privacy in the workplace. How can we assume our information, which we freely share and that others are hungry to mine and sell, will be kept private? And why should we care when it isn't?

Some (those of us in the United States) assume we are protected by the Fourth Amendment to the US Constitution or by the benign neglect of our employers, but that's not true. Imagine yourself on your personal computer at home. The door is shut, and no one is around. You have a sense of privacy and an assumption that you are not being watched, but there's a pretty good chance that you are. Just this month, The New York Times reported that the NSA is actively harvesting images people share through electronic communications for use in facial recognition programs.

Where we are now with privacy
Just as people haven't changed their perceptions of privacy rights in the digital era, legal frameworks and thinking around personal privacy at work, especially in the US, haven't kept up. This has left employees with a false sense of comfort. There is also a rising tension in the workplace as employees broadly disobey policies (which organizations don't have the will to enforce) that unrealistically forbid personal online activity.

US corporate culture expects you to check your personal freedoms at the office door, but with appropriate company policies, your employer is legally entitled to monitor most of your workplace communications, according to the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, a nationally recognized nonprofit consumer education and advocacy group.

Regardless of how you feel about Edward Snowden's actions, at least he has gotten us talking about our rights to privacy -- at home and at work -- and has shined a light on the gap between perceptions and reality about individual privacy rights. More than 50 countries have established comprehensive privacy legislation, with Europe, having thought deeply about the privacy consequences of these technologies for decades, leading the way.

What privacy will look like 10 years from now
A decade from now, even if we're not Ralph in our computing pajamas, the privacy landscape will be dramatically different. Computing technologies will increasingly be integrated into our private person, while computing storage and services will be in the cloud. From a legal standpoint, I believe laws will evolve to interpret the Fourth Amendment as providing individuals a right to privacy -- even in the workplace -- as an inalienable right.

I predict that the technology we rely on every day will reflect the integrated nature of our personal and professional lives, and that we will move between them with a simple wave of our hands or the flip of a switch. The dimensions of space and time will no longer define how we use information, whether personal or professional. Our constitutional right to a private life in the workplace will drive a logical separation of information, so that our family-related information will be separated from our business information, ensuring our privacy is protected.

About the Author(s)

David Melnick

Founder & CEO, WebLife Balance

David has worked for 25 years with US and global companies, advising them on strategy, risk-based priorities, and effective governance of highly sensitive and regulated data. He is a CIPP/E/US, CISA, and CISSP and has authored several books through McGraw-Hill Publishing and Macmillan Publishing including PDA Security: Incorporating Handhelds Into Your Enterprise.

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