Monday, April 7, 1997

Week of 04/07/1997

Big Boss or Big Brother?
Privacy in the workplace is limited
- by David Matthews 2

Picture this: You’re at the office, and you get an interoffice E-mail from your friend about the latest changes in office decorum. You don’t like the changes, and you let your friend know all about your displeasure in no uncertain terms. And in there you include how you don’t like your boss’ toupee and that you think he’s having an affair with his assistant. Nothing new, you’ve done this kind of stuff before.

Next day you get called into the boss’ office, where he hands you his copy of the E-mail you had sent, along with several other E-mails you had sent in the past sharing the same views, and at the end of this is the infamous pink slip notifying you that you are no longer an employee. You start packing your desk and wonder just how the hell your boss was able to know what you said. You know your friend wouldn’t fink on you, so you realize that your boss was reading your E-mail. So now you’re mad. After all, E-mail is supposed to be like regular mail. Private, right?


One of the "dirty little secrets" about the electronic communication - be it through an online service, the Internet, or a private Intranet - is that E-mail communications are NOT private. Online services can tap into your E-mail messages if they suspect you’re violating their Terms of Service. Same with Internet Providers, but even more so because your message may be ferried to different system administrators in different parts of the world before it gets to you.

And the debate about office privacy is not just about E-mail, but also what you access online and how you use your computer at work. Office employers were amazed and angered by a study that showed that the highest visited Internet sites on office computers were for Penthouse and Playboy. Two county workers in the greater Atlanta area were fired after having sexually explicit images loaded into their workplace computers. And with the advent of telecommuting, where people work at home while in communication with the office, the question of personal privacy is made even murkier.

Let’s get some of the obvious points ironed out first: If you’re using a computer that is owned by your company, it’s not yours to do with as you wish! It’s there for you to do your work, not to play Doom or view the Playmate of the Month. And because it’s their systems, they have the right to determine what you are allowed to have on it or how it is to be used. And yes, that includes putting in devices that block you from accessing certain sites on the Internet or monitor how long you play games instead of working. Both devices ARE available, and possibly already even in your office computers as you read this.

Where the line gets confusing, however, is when we get into telecommuting - where people use their own computers to communicate with the office. While it’s almost instinct to say that using your computer gives you more privacy than before, current legal actions say otherwise. Armed with lawyers and a search warrant, a company that used to employ you can raid your home and seize your computer in the name of "protecting intellectual property." These lawyers can then either keep your computer and all software and printouts or copy then wipe your entire hard drive. ALL information, both business and personal, to be held until the matter is "resolved."

This is a serious issue and something that needs to be addressed now by business leaders, computer users, and legal experts. And if we don’t take care of this now, it will only get worse when telecommuting becomes a workplace standard. And believe me, it WILL be a workplace standard.

While it’s naïve to believe that the workplace would be willing to supply each and every telecommuter with a separate computer for work, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to ask for some alternative devices to be installed into the system, such as removable hard drives or zip drives. Both of which are already commercially available and cheaper than buying a laptop computer. These devices can ensure that workplace data can be stored separate from your personal data.

And while we’re at it, let’s address the issue of "intellectual property" so that it doesn’t come in conflict with personal freedoms and privacy. While employees have accepted the fact that lifetime employment is gone forever, employers have yet to recognize that when they lose an employee, either through layoffs, termination, or simply to another job, that they no longer have control over that person’s talents.

Success is not inherent in a company, it is inherent in the people who work in that company. NBC did not make David Letterman a success. They simply provided the air time for him to be a success. CBS knew that, which was why they were able to get Letterman from NBC. The same applies to Microsoft, Apple, Sun Microsystems, and IBM. Their success or failure will not come from the workplace, but rather in the people they employ and how the workplace allows them to be creative.

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