Workplace monitoring: Who’s secretly watching you work?

By Elizabeth Bromstein

Workplace monitoring: Who's watching you work? Picking your nose at work when you think nobody’s looking? You probably shouldn’t. Not just because, come on, that’s disgusting, but also because you might be on candid camera.

How much privacy you can or should be able to expect in the workplace is a fairly hot button issue lately, as employers are making use of technologies that allow them to monitor computer use, emails exchanges and more.

This recent article in the Globe and Mail lists SpyAgent, NetVizor and WebWatcher as programs that can detect pornography websites or online gambling. But there’s a lot more that your boss can do to keep tabs on you.

Because we, at Workopolis want to know, I contacted Avner Levin, Director of the Privacy and Cyber Crime Institute, and Associate Professor at Ryerson University, to ask what monitoring methods employers are using and how much of what they’re doing is legal.

Levin rattles off a list of examples, including technologies that monitor and cache the websites you visit and flag keywords in your email; cameras for recording and observing; passcards/keys that can be used for monitoring location; cash registers to track things like whether an employee is engaged in a higher than normal amount of returns – a flag for fraud; and location tracking of mobile devices that can create a graphic representation of where someone or their phone is throughout the day.

Then there’s freakier stuff, “Things that employers have been using on a perhaps not as widely reported basis include key loggers — software that they would install surreptitiously on a computer and that will record every keystroke and every screen shot on that computer throughout its use.”

That last would likely be deemed excessive and unjustified intrusion, says Levin, but actually, there little to nil in the way of actual law in Ontario – Canada works on a provincial basis so, other provinces might have more legislature but in general, it’s a free for all. What we do have is case law.

Levin points to the case of Sudbury communications technology teacher Richard Cole, who has been charged with possession of child pornography. Last month, after three court proceedings, the Ontario Court of Appeal ruled that Cole’s charter rights were violated when police, without a warrant, searched a laptop loaned to him by the school where he worked. A maintenance tech had found images of an underage student and passed the computer onto a board official, who copied the images onto disc then passed the computer on to police. The court ultimately ruled that, while the tech and official had acted reasonably and the disc of images was therefore permissible as evidence, the police search was illegal and anything they found was inadmissible. Cole, they said, had a “reasonable expectation” of privacy. You can get more details here. And here.

Levin points to Cole’s case as “the first that said that there is some kind of legal protection to privacy in the workplace.” In Canada, he says “We don’t have a lot of actual law in the form of legislation or statutes that protect people if they work in the private sector.”

OK, here’s where I say I don’t think Cole’s rights were violated. The computer DIDN’T BELONG TO HIM.

I’m mostly in favour of an employer’s right to closely monitor their employees’ workplace activity. Your workplace is your employer’s house, and what you do in someone else’s house is their business, just like what you do in your own house is your business. This extends to your belongings as well, just like it extends to any computers and mobile devices loaned to you by your company. Some believe this sort of thinking will lead to a totalitarian workplace regime in which employees are implanted with tracking chips that administer electric shocks for calling Mother on her birthday. I think that the opposite attitude undermines an employer’s ability to set a workplace standard and serves to protect people with something to hide.

Still, cautions Levin, “The question is whether there should be any boundaries to what an employer can do.” There are employee freedoms, he says, that should be givens. “Are we comfortable with the idea that an employer can look at what we’re doing individually then tell us off for wasting time or sending a certain email? Is that the way we want the workplace to develop? Personally, I happen to think that there should be limits. There should be just behaving reasonably.”

Fair enough. I’m not married to my opinion. Also, I work from home, so it’s not an issue for me (that’s how we could all circumvent this entire problem!). Feel free to weigh in.

6 Responses to “Workplace monitoring: Who’s secretly watching you work?”

 
  1. kdog says:

    For starters, I don’t agree at all with the court’s decision that the teacher’s charter rights had been violated. If this were a student hiding a gun in a school locker, it wouldn’t even be an issue. The laptop is school property, and if this teacher is dumb enough to surf for child porn on a laptop loaned to him by his employer, then it’s his own fault if he gets caught. If the school turns one of their own computers over to the police to be searched on the basis of their own good will and desire to do the right thing because they found something illegal on it, then a search warrant isn’t required or necessary.

    Secondly, why bother to rule that the browsing history is out but the images are admissiable? The images alone are enough to nail this guy’s ass to the wall, so what difference does it make? His career, reputation and the rest of his life are ruined. That’s like saying to him, “We were going to shoot you with two bullets, but good news! The courts ruled that two bullets is excessive, so instead, we are only going to shoot you with one.”

  2. James says:

    The solution is simple. The provinicial parliament needs to pass a law prohibiting employers from using Facebook or other social media as a basis for dismissal; also prohibit keystroke programs and other intrusive means of spying on employees. Prohibit using cell phones to track people’s movements. So what if government isn’t “Big Brother,” but Big Business is? Corporations do their best to negate individual rights. It’s time that we told them to keep their bribes and passed some laws to require civilized conduct on their part. What’s on social media is none of an employer’s business–period. While it may be stupid to post negative messages about one’s company or boss, that’s not as bad as companies snooping and spying on people. Let’s stop businesses in their tracks from continuing these inane practices.

  3. librarylemon says:

    Besides all this, I wonder if it isn’t reasonable to expect employers to tell you what (if anything) they are watching. If I know my boss can see my emails, I won’t read them at work – that’s of benefit to them more than it is to me, surely, since it cuts out the time-wasting factor. I agree that social media aren’t an employer’s business, but then again, what you do on their technology could very well be. I have no sympathies for any employee’s privacy if they’re doing something illegal on work property in the first place.

  4. Idle says:

    One question i always wanted to ask is, what do you do when you absolutely have no official work assigned to you.

    I work from projects to projects and a lot of time there are couple of weeks where i absolutely have no work to do so what do i do in that case ?

  5. john doe says:

    Why spend the resources (money and people) on tracking what the employee do?
    Strictly from the productivity point of view, I see this situation much simpler: if you do your job right you get to keep your job, if you surf the website when you’re supposed to work your boss will fire you for not getting the resiults, never mind about surfing the web.
    So, to me tracking employee’s every key stroke is waste of money.
    Now, about having pornography on the work computer that’s another story.
    Just my 2 cents…..

  6. Jane says:

    James, I disagree with almost everything that you said.

    “The provinicial parliament needs to pass a law prohibiting employers from using Facebook or other social media as a basis for dismissal; also prohibit keystroke programs and other intrusive means of spying on employees. Prohibit using cell phones to track people’s movements. So what if government isn’t “Big Brother,” but Big Business is?”

    Are you serious? The Government couldn’t care less if you got fired because you were dumb enough to go on Facebook during company time! An employer has the right to fire someone for NOT DOING THEIR JOB and the Government is not going to tell them they can’t!

    “What’s on social media is none of an employer’s business–period. While it may be stupid to post negative messages about one’s company or boss, that’s not as bad as companies snooping and spying on people.”

    Let’s try a scenario: You are the boss of ABC Company. Your employee has posted that your company is struggling and you (as the boss) have no idea what you are doing. Your major client(s) see this and pull out o a major contract for fear of you going bankrupt before they get their stuff. Not only has this employee now made you look bad, they lost you money. THIS IS THE REASON PEOPLE CARE ABOUT PUBLIC NEGATIVE COMMENTS and a company has every right to protect themselves from this type of conduct from an individual.

 

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