Page last updated at 10:59 GMT, Monday, 1 June 2009 11:59 UK

When employers become watchers

By Richard Bilton
Special correspondent, BBC News

Imagine if today at work you were watched for every single minute.

Andy Loizou
The technology in the AA patrol van was designed to improve efficiency

Not just when you arrived and left, or when you went for your lunch. But every task, every conversation, every moment observed and logged.

Modern surveillance can offer that and many employers find it attractive.

Andy Loizou lost his job after getting back from his break a few minutes late.

It was one a series of incidents logged by his employer, the AA. Andy's patrol-van was connected to the company's computer.

GPS technology allowed his bosses to know where he was, what he was doing and how long it was taking.

"It's like big brother watching over you", says Andy. "If you wanted to go to the toilet and you just went, you had to think - 'did I do the right thing, should I have told somebody or was it too long?'" he added.

Monday, 1 June, 2009
2100 BST on BBC Two

From the consumer's point of view, however, perhaps this is simply progress in a world where we are all looking for an efficient, cost-effective service?

If your car has broken down you might not appreciate Andy or any of his colleagues spending too long on their breaks.

Surveillance may in fact, benefit us all.

But Andy says the problem is data only tells half a story. If he helps someone on the street, or deals with an inquiry the computer shows him parked up, doing nothing.

"People come up to you and pick your brains: 'How do you check the oil in my cars?', and you might just get out and assist. On paper that will look as if I'm stealing time."

Using data from surveillance, Andy was dismissed after 24 years of service. He took his case to a tribunal and won.

Supplying 'Big Brother'

Surveillance is an expanding market and for those wanting to watch and listen there is an extensive armoury.

Listening device
Surveillance technology is no longer confined to government agencies

Adrian Mudd sells spying equipment. Not to James Bond types, but to anyone who wants to listen.

Employers, along with suspicious partners and private detectives, make up the bulk of his customers.

The range of secret kit is extraordinary.

Pens that plug into computers and record every keystroke. Plugs containing hidden phones that allow you to listen in on a room. Adrian's business is worth half a million pounds a year.

"This item here is a listen-through-the-wall device. It's got a special microphone and is an amplifier that you can listen through," he says.

"So if Big Brother's watching, who are you then?" I ask. "Little Brother?"

Adrian smiles. "We're supplying Big Brother."

Military-style operation

Surveillance, however, is not all about technology.

There is an enormous demand for the type that involves getting your hands dirty; something that Dave Kearns, ex-policeman and now specialist in covert operations, is well aware of as he takes charge of a group of ex-marines on a mission before daybreak.

"Operation Acacia today is to put you guys in to the undergrowth," he tells them. "Video evidence to be gathered, facial recognition to be gathered. In and out without any compromise."

They may be ex-marines but the truth is, this does not feel ex-anything. This feels like a military operation.

They arrive at the "target" location - an industrial site in the Warwickshire countryside.

The van pulls up outside the gates. They leap out, scramble into a freezing ditch and disappear into a hedge.

If you were to stand 5ft (1.5m) from their hide, you would have no idea that they were there.

But they are armed with cameras and will sit tight for as long as it takes.

This operation successfully caught someone stealing floor tiles from his employer. The man in question was shown the evidence and he resigned.

Others operations have caught thieves in the office, people breaking contracts or claiming benefits illegally.

Surveillance is easier and more capable then ever before and those who pay our wages are increasingly using it to watch us a little closer.

BBC Two's Who's Watching You continues on Monday, 1 June, 2009 at 2100 BST on BBC Two. Or watch afterwards on iPlayer .

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