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Wednesday, January 20, 1999 Published at 15:53 GMT


Watching how you work

At present managers can monitor their staff with impunity

By The Money Programme's John Pennycate

There can't be many office-workers who don't sometimes play games on their computers, or sneak a look at naked people on the Internet. Email is often used to circulate jokes or snide remarks about colleagues. Most people probably regard it as harmless fun.

Watch the Money Programme's report on surveillance at work
But employers can't see it that way. They may be legally liable for downloaded obscenity or defamatory emails. And they don't like their staff wasting time.

Now they have a high-tech means to combat these problems by monitoring - in effect spying - on their employees.

Keeping tabs

The boss can check where you are in the building with your ID tag, listen in to your phone extension, read your emails and monitor your computer.

Even a simple office wall-clock can house a minute TV camera with a pinhole-size lens.

GBC, which also advertises cameras concealed in smoke-detectors, loudspeakers and thermostats, says its sales are doubling every year as more firms feel the need secretly to monitor staff they can no longer trust.

[ image:  An office wall-clock can house a minute TV camera]
An office wall-clock can house a minute TV camera
"Workforces are more temporary. They are hired through agencies, increasingly. And whereas in the past you wouldn't think of stealing from your employer - you've worked for them for a number of years and you feel a lot of loyalty for them - nowadays that loyalty is less strong," Julian Sharples said.

But one of the biggest risks for employers stems from the misuse of the firm's computers.

Solicitor David Engel advises companies in this area and says many companies are unaware of the dangers they face.

"It's pretty wide-ranging from things like libel and breach of confidence, to computer hacking, liability for virus transmission, that sort of thing," Mr Engel said.

Dangerous mail

Email is especially dangerous. A hastily written, chatty email is in law a published document, and can be required to be produced in a court case.

Disparaging emails from Bill Gates about his competitors have been embarrassingly read out in Microsoft's courtroom fight with the American government.

[ image: Workplace computers are widely used to access pornography]
Workplace computers are widely used to access pornography
The Norwich Union had to pay the Western Provident Association 450,000 in damages and costs over a defamatory internal email.

Aside from that, Britain is the world's number two consumer of hardcore pornography on the Internet and its seems that workplace computers are widely used for such purposes.

There has also been a succession of high-profile sackings of employees viewing so-called 'adult' web sites in such places as the Ministry of Defence, the BBC, and NatWest Markets.


Most companies and public bodies issue guidelines on the use of computers and staff are sometimes warned they might be secretly monitored.

The problem for the employer is his credibility. Rules are useless unless they are policed and enforceable.

Andy Harris is the brains behind a set of software programmes called Mimesweeper which blocks certain images or phrases from being delivered via e-mail.

But he says that while 78% of firms using email have a content security policy, only 22% have the means to enforce it.

Internet filtering industry

Monitoring internet use, however, is getting progressively easier. New software produced by another company, Omniquad, lets an employer secretly monitor what his staff is doing on their computer terminals.

Everybody's computer use leaves a record, and the Desktop Surveillance programme can replay it.

[ image: Surveillance of employees is becoming controversial]
Surveillance of employees is becoming controversial
Daniel Sobstel wrote the software: "If you are an employee, and Desktop Surveillance is installed on your company's systems, you will never be accused of something you haven't done. You'll never be falsely dismissed. So it really works both ways."

The technology can also be used pre-emptively. An employer can enter key words that will identify Internet web sites he wants his staff to stay away from.

The warning: "This activity is against company computer usage policy. Please stop now," will appear if staff venture into banned areas.

Although it's perfectly legal, surveillance of workers is becoming controversial.

"I suspect the real ethical issue is that there's a hidden agenda here," Dr David Preston said. "Companies are not really concerned with the general one-hour use of - you know, sending a few emails in a month. What they're really concerned with is identifying people that they distrust. And they target people, use it as a weapon to collect a bunch of evidence that will ultimately remove people that they don't like."

Court intervention

Although the law allows employers to spy on their staff's phone calls, emails and computer use, a landmark ruling at the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg indicates there is a possibility that things might change.

[ image: John Pennycate:
John Pennycate: "changing attitudes could take time"
In 1997 the former Assistant Chief Constable of Merseyside, Alison Halford, complained that her internal office phone calls had been bugged during her sex discrimination case.

The British government argued that the employer could monitor calls but the judges ruled that it was a breach of the Human Rights Convention.

The Convention becomes part of UK law later this year - but changing attitudes could take time.

"It may have some very gradual incremental effect in, perhaps, slowly over a long period of years, in case law, building up a right to privacy in the UK," David Engel said. He added that, at present, there is no right to privacy under the law in England and Wales.

So, at least for now, managers remain able to monitor their staff with impunity.

The only way to be sure you're not being watched at work is to be self-employed - or to be one of the watchers yourself.

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