Big Brother's Watching

by Garreth Myers

Societies and communities have always used surveillance as an aid to govern themselves. If in families, the elder keeps a watchful eye on the growth and nurturing of younger members, in societies, the rule of law is enforced through legal surveillance. Close circuit video surveillance cameras dot our cities and towns, making them more governable, and ensure retrospective monitoring and crime prevention through deterrence. At the work place, employers can access and monitor their workers by employing a number of electronic surveillance options available to them too.

The theoretical idea behind surveillance was propounded by the philosopher Jeremy Bentham and carried forward by Michel Foucault is the Panoptikon, an architectural structure where the occupants can be surveyed constantly. The idea is that constant surveillance will produce better behavior because the surveyed; the prisoner or worker or student will internalize the values of the surveyor. The possibilities of monitoring the modern employee and her/his performance are numerous. From the relatively old idea of recording attendance through swipe cards, computer-based monitoring software can record all data about the exact work of any employee who is using a computer. This allows the employer to count the number of keystrokes, the amount of time spent on the machine and all other parameters important in giving them an idea of employee's behavior. Additionally some employees are required to wear a "badge", which physically keeps track of where they are at any given point. This data can then be used to analyze and evaluate employee behavior and work patterns.

As with surveillance by the state of its citizens, employers also survey the workplace primarily to ensure security for its facilities and data, improve productivity and prevent theft. However, in both the public and corporate spheres several critics have raised ethical concerns about where the line between being accountable, and retaining the right to one's privacy falls, and if there is even one in effect in the first place. For instance in the United States, laws stipulate physical areas within the workplace or in public, and methods of surveillance; ensuring the rights of citizens to know when they are being monitored electronically. Separate laws exist for audio and video surveillance and covert surveillance of any kind requires judicial approval. However, just the act of recording individuals does open up the possibility of abuse, and that is endemic to such technology. Critics of surveillance in the work place say that this can have a particularly dehumanizing effect on the employee and can augment stress, as there is a constant sense of being monitored.

Critics of surveillance also point out that since monitoring at the work place is normally of employees in low skill areas or of those lower down the pecking order, it inherently creates a sense of unfairness among employees, as the ones who are monitoring them are not being monitored themselves. Also having access to employees personal information in computer surveillance has brought about instances where peoples jobs are terminated on grounds linked with factors that have nothing to do with their professional conduct or productivity, such as belonging to a union, sending a joke from a work account or pursuing an alternative lifestyle.

Much has to do with the end use of electronic surveillance - that is how do employers or the state utilize the material gathered from electronic surveillance? The same information can either create distrust or weaken the morale of a people or a workforce, or alternately, it can provide entrepreneurs and law enforcement agencies with a vital management tool, that can improve productivity and service, as well as provide the state valuable technological assistance in keeping its citizens safe.


Dichter, Mark S., and Burkhardt, Michael S. "Electronic Interaction in the Workplace: Monitoring, Retrieving and Storing Employee Communications in the Internet Age.

Greenlaw, Paul S., and Prudeanu, Cornelia. "The Impact of Federal Legislation to Limit Electronic Monitoring." Public Personnel Management 26, 2 (June 22, 1997) p. 227.

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