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Tuesday, May 11, 1999 Published at 12:04 GMT 13:04 UK


Watching the workers

The Data Protection Agency is drafting new rules to crack down on the secret filming and surveillance of employees. BBC Employment Correspondent Stephen Evans looks at the background to the moves and considers the future for employers frustrated by crime in the workplace.

If you are an employer dealing with theft in the office, a hidden camera may be the only way of catching the culprit.

The BBC's Stephen Evans: Thieves are caught but innocent people are outraged
If you are an innocent, law-abiding worker, however, the secret filming might seem outrageous.

Unions in Manchester are currently jumping up and down about a case where they say their members were secretly filmed in the toilets of a clothing plant.

They accept that thieves may have been caught on camera secreting goods about their person before leaving. But for the many people not involved, the whole business has been a strain.

[ image: Some employees find surveillance stressful]
Some employees find surveillance stressful
There are no rules about what becomes of the video footage or about when and where cameras can be installed. Or take another case uncovered by BBC TV's One O'Clock News.

Employees in a travel agency gradually realised that their boss always knew exactly how long they were away from their desks.

They finally identified a camera and put up posters on a glass partition to screen themselves from it. The posters were taken down.

All that is about to change or at least be clarified by the new code of practice from the Data Protection Agency, which will have the force of law.

Risk of crime

Its draft regulations say "surveillance equipment" should only be installed to film employees where there is a risk of crime to "provide evidence in appropriate cases before the courts".

It also lays much evidence on consent with employees' representatives. It may seem bizarre to seek permission to film secretly, but the reasoning is that it should only happen in specific, serious situations like theft.

[ image: The Post Office uses surveillance methods in sorting offices]
The Post Office uses surveillance methods in sorting offices
And then, the company should go to the employees' representatives and outline the case before agreeing on a course of action.

There is, of course, nothing new about surveillance and monitoring employees. No doubt the slaves in Ancient Egypt were monitored. It is as old as employed work itself.

And agreeing surveillance with unions is also not new. The Post Office has had what are known as "watching galleries" - two-way mirrors on walls and ceilings around and above sorting offices to detect theft. The Post Office even puts them in toilets - and with the consent of the union.

That kind of one-off agreement will become the rule. Unions will probably welcome it because it gives them some say. It will also protect the innocent.

The security industry certainly welcomes it because it puts order into difficult, unregulated situations. The contentious areas in the future, though, are likely to come from newer technology than cameras.

New technology

There are now infra-red badges available to be worn by employees and which can be read by sensors, so giving the boss your exact whereabouts. A professor in Reading University has developed microchips which send signals to sensors.

He has already had one embedded in his arm and as he walks past doors he is greeted by an electronic voice. The key issue will be consent.

[ image: Micro-chip technology: The surveillance future]
Micro-chip technology: The surveillance future
Clearly, nobody can be forced to wear implants. We are a long way from 1984. But the way in which new methods will be introduced once the law has been tightened will be by seeking the consent of employees when they are first taken on.

The Institute of Personnel and Development, which represents Britain's personnel officers, says that not too much should be made of bizarre, nightmarish means of surveillance. They are not the general rule in the UK.

Unions say, however, that in America employers are increasingly thinking along these lines. And what happens in America often migrates to the rest of the world.

Anyway, it is not the new technology you always have to worry about. There is, apparently, one big firm in America which takes on lots of students. In every batch, there's usually one whose job it is to keep an eye on the others.

See how your boss may be keeping tabs on you

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