by Christopher Lindquist

Surveillance Is a Fact of Corporate Life

May 26, 20053 mins
IT Strategy

I expected my recent piece about workplace monitoring technologies to elicit some reader response. Within the confines of trying to make the story interesting to read, I tried to present a balanced perspective on monitoring. I figured that balance was destined to make me a target, particularly of privacy advocates who felt that monitoring of any kind is immoral.

But the advocates never materialized. The comments on the piece have generally been thoughtful and surprisingly positive about the idea.

Part of it has to do with CIO’s audience, of course. IT has long had to live in the real world, where a subset of employees steal things and slack off and work inefficiently and generally cost instead of making money for their companies. Technology tools can help identify those very employees. But there’s still a Big Brother ring to it all that could understandably irritate the rank and file (and when that happens, the overall detrimental effect of monitoring might outweigh the benefits.)

But where’s the outcry?

Could it be that it’s finally happened? Could the idea of the “Surveillance Society” be so ingrained already that we’ll politely succomb to monitoring without so much as a “Hold on a minute…”? Possibly.

And is that so bad?

After all, as the argument goes, if you’re doing no wrong; you’ve got nothing to hide. Of course, the definition of “wrong” can get pretty flexible. Today’s pleasant diversion could be tomorrow’s termination-inducing offence. All it takes is a change in management–or maybe even a personal vendetta.

Digital video backups, keycard records, keystroke loggers, Web traffic monitors, email content archivers; give it a couple years and employers will be able to grab the monitoring history of any employee and quickly filter out a couple reasons to fire them upon demand with enough evidence to keep those pesky wrongful termination suits at bay.

Granted, assuming we get to that point, it will also give some employers the chance to differentiate themselves on privacy issues. If you’re the top salesperson in your industry, which company are you going to pick? The one that lets you do business the way you always have–including those long lunch-hour-plus outings to Nevada Bob’s and mid-day “one-on-none” meetings at the ball park? Or the one that tracks your every move on a GPS enabled phone and automatically checks your actual location against your office calendar every hour?

Of course, the rules are always different for the stars, so they may be able to negotiate invisibility for themselves anywhere. Everyone else? Just smile for the camera.