Workplace Privacy: Big Brother Is Watching

Companies may have the right to monitor employees who are checking their bank balances or shopping online on corporate networks. The real question is, should they?

David Melnick, Founder & CEO, WebLife Balance

November 4, 2014

4 Min Read

The technological sophistication of employee monitoring tools available today gives companies the power to scrutinize virtually every move an employee makes using keyboard logging, cellphone tapping, tracking devices attached to office badges -- even chairs that vibrate when an employee gets up from his or her desk.

To be sure, many of these approaches are extreme. But they all raise ethical issues we’ve never faced before as a society.

Why do companies monitor? One reason, according to a study Kansas State University conducted last year called “The Effects of Sanctions and Stigmas on Cyberloafing,” is that between 60% and 80% of employees’ time on the Internet at work has nothing to do with work. Here are a few other scary stats from the study:

  • 77% of people check their social media profiles from work computers

  • 49% of women shop online at work during the holiday season

  • 20% of men view pornography at work

So, companies monitor. They notify employees and gain consent with strong Acceptable Use Policies (AUPs) and then operationalize increasingly sophisticated rules-based monitoring with Data Loss Prevention (DLP), Deep Packet Inspection of SSL activity, and even spyware.

Of course, companies have the right to monitor what travels over their networks, at least in the US. They have shareholder, customer, and employee interests to protect. In fact, in the US, with limited notification and consent, employers have very few limitations as to what they can monitor around employees’ Internet use at work.

In Europe, privacy is a human rights issue
The right to monitor becomes a bit more complicated for companies operating outside of the US, however. Europe, for example, has worked actively on the issue of governing privacy. The EU Data Protection Directive -- which is in transition at the moment -- provides protections for employees’ personal life in the workplace. The European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights, Article 8.1, proclaims that “everyone has the right to respect for his private and family life, his home and correspondence.”

According to the Article 29 Working Party working document on surveillance of electronic communications in the workplace, “Court has made it clear that the protection of private life enshrined in Article 8 does not exclude the professional life as a worker …” This approach to extending personal privacy protection into the workplace has been migrating to other jurisdictions around the world. For now, most employers outside of Europe can access any email or text message or track employee online activity -- anything that relies on a company asset to travel, unless it’s a personal device -- and limit employees’ expectations of privacy at work.

Whoa! Why are we monitoring, again?
Security professionals are keenly aware of the pressure to secure without consideration for privacy, and monitoring seems to be the tactic du jour. But let’s take a moment to step back and reflect on the implications and realities of monitoring.

We monitor because our networks and our employees are under constant cyberattack and because CIOs and CISOs are attempting to maintain command and control over increasingly distributed corporate networks. Employees have 24/7 access to the corporate network via a variety of personal devices. To achieve security and address liability, employer policies often assert no-employee-right-to-privacy, and they often implement monitoring systems in an attempt to regain control over employee Internet use.

These issues are legitimate, but I’m not sure that the end justifies the means. I think we’re monitoring because we don’t know what else to do, and fundamentally, I think we’re monitoring because we can. It’s time to ask ourselves whether we should.

The heart of the problem is that our personal lives are co-mingled with our work lives. Because we use work devices for personal reasons and personal devices for work reasons, it’s difficult for employers not to invade personal space when monitoring work activity. At the same time, we can and should isolate and protect personal activity and privacy. The debate needs to move beyond "we can" and "we should" to how can we separate and protect personal stuff.

Is there a less invasive approach that benefits us all? Let’s chat about the possibilities in the comments.

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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