A type of paranoia is stealthily finding its way into the workplaces of the world’s developed nations. It might be an echo of George Orwell’s 1984 in a rebirth of Big Brother, this time in human and/or digital form. This kind of creepiness is increasingly worrying US workers under workplace surveillance.
Answers investigators are trying to find centre on whether or not intelligence gathering in the workplace, overtly or covertly, is ethical or legal. Some of the more cynical maintain that if workers are innocent of anything underhand, they will not mind being spied upon, and might even enjoy displaying their morality. More liberal indignation insists that privacy is a human and civic right and that no one or no thing is permitted to invade it.
That point of view, however, is not universally held, and even exists in different layers depending where in the world you happen to be. The law and the ethicists regard the issue differently in Japan, for example, to the way it is held in the United States.
To confound matters even further, the definition of privacy differs widely wherever you go. In South Africa, for example, you will not be committing a crime if you spy on someone, but you could find yourself on the wrong side of an expensive civil suit.
Some sort of universality occurs in the separation of surveillance of employees in the workplace and outside of it. The majority of such laws state implicitly that employers must limit their intelligence gathering to areas related to work. For example, tracing employee’s company telephones, cellphones and accessing e-mail accounts are permissible, but tapping home phones or hacking into their private e-mail systems are not. Employers, in most jurisdictions, are not required to inform their staff that they are being surreptitiously monitored. An argument for the ‘yes’ brigade is that staff members will be less inclined to dishonesty if they knew they were on camera. The opposing view maintains that overt surveillance simply drives the bad element underground and makes them more difficult to identify and to get the goods on.
Productivity versus conflict
If companies decide to be up-front with their surveillance policy, they might immediately face a divided staff with some in favour and others against, leading to long wrangling, arguments, delays and unhappiness. The employer’s job is to minimise the number of dissatisfied workers by convincing them that monitoring is ultimately beneficial.
And what of those companies who do not have workplace surveillance, and want to install it? It is a given that some workers will protest strongly. For that matter, does an employer tell new staff members before they are hired that they will be monitored after they have been taken on or not at all?
How this scenario is unfolding is of as much interest to labour unions as it is to management. Bosses are finding that a well established, wide-coverage picture and sound system of workforce activity can often yield valuable information on labour union matters. Shop stewards worry that such loosely gathered intelligence can forewarn managers of impending union activity and even forestall shop floor action. And labour spies can be recruited by either labour unions or employers with a similar goal – to find out what the other is thinking or doing.
According to Wikipedia, a labour spy is someone recruited or employed to gather intelligence, commit sabotage, sow dissent or engage in other such activities, typically within a corporate entity.
Does it get that far in South Africa? Undoubtedly, and there are many case histories to prove it.
Labour spying and industrial espionage are discreet bedfellows and there is little to differentiate their behaviour in reaping the information or result they require. Each uses stealth to gather intellectual and sensitive data often in an unethical manner with the aim of getting the edge on the other side.
In South Africa, labour spying or industrial espionage per se is not unlawful, but perpetrators could be nabbed under other such illegal activities as theft or trespassing. The underlying philosophy of industrial espionage is, why spend years and millions of Rands on research and development constructing a customer base when you can bribe an employee in the competitor’s camp for a few rand, tap their telephones or bug their offices.
This is a complex and fascinating subject and it concerns us all. I will resume the journey in future editorials.
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