Privacy Is Under Siege at Work, at Home, and Online
Technological advances and the spread of online discourse and commerce have led to ever more pervasive intrusions into our private lives: hidden cameras in bathrooms, the explosion of random urinalysis by companies and schools, and parents and spouses installing surveillance software on their home PCs to catch cybershenanigans. Meanwhile, developing technologies such as tracking of wireless devices, biometric identifiers, DNA coding, and "spy" TV are creating an entirely new set of privacy worries.
Yet while it may be tougher than ever to keep things private, individuals have some ways to fight back. First, in order to protect what's left, it's critical to understand how--and why--privacy is under assault. Then there are steps you can take to prevent its further erosion.
Face it, you're toiling in a fishbowl
When Renee Mcintosh bared her childhood fears, her desires, and her intimate marital struggles to a company psychiatrist, she never guessed the 15-page record of her internal life would one day be devoured by co-workers at a happy hour, along with nachos and margaritas. But that's what happened. "I told him things I've never shared with anyone," says McIntosh tearfully. A representative of Safeway in Fremont, Calif., where McIntosh worked as a payroll clerk for over 20 years, gave the document to one of her colleagues. Safeway contends the 1997 evaluation--which it required of McIntosh to receive worker's compensation--wasn't private. "It was a public document. . . . One could do pretty much what one wanted with that," testified Safeway attorney Michael Marks in a deposition last spring. The complaint is pending in state superior court.
In this way McIntosh discovered a cold fact of modern work life: There's precious little privacy left on the job. In most states, employers are entitled to--and increasingly do--read their workers' E-mail, conduct random drug tests, surreptitiously tape employees, monitor Web surfing--and even look into their workers' medical and genetic data. As work and home life become more intertwined, companies are requesting subpoenas to search workers' home computers for evidence. Employers say they have no choice but to ratchet up observation. Otherwise, they risk lawsuits stemming from the presence of sexually explicit, racist, or libelous material at work. Firms also are concerned about maintaining productivity with so many online distractions, safeguarding intellectual property, and preventing drug abuse. "Companies have to be more vigilant and restrictive in terms of the free speech of employees because they can be held responsible for it," says Stephen Paskoff, a consultant in Atlanta who advises companies on privacy. "The only place where you're safe from monitoring is in your private thoughts." The courts have agreed by overwhelmingly siding with employers in privacy cases.