The level of privacy an employee has in the workplace is a growing area of concern.
Particularly with new communications technologies like the World Wide Web and e-mail,
the rules are unclear about whether employees may expect their company to observe
what they are doing and saying.
Compared to the telephone or traditional mail, online communications can allow
employees to quietly and unobtrusively do tremendous damage to a company. Good security
practices by employers may require them to institute a certain level of monitoring or
recording of employee activities. This is even more true when legislation or regulation
contains disproportionate fines for companies that fail to have sufficient security
measures in place.
Legislators or regulators can only guess at the privacy needs and expectations of
multi-millions of employees working in millions of different businesses and industries.
They can not provide adequate solutions. Any law or regulation would needlessly cram
workers and businesses into privacy practices that satisfy few and interfere with the rest.
Instead, a decentralized process must guide the development of privacy practices in the
workplace. Foremost, employers and employees should be able to bargain over the terms
of employment, including what privacy expectations an employee may have. Businesses may
find that they retain good employees by offering them privacy. On the other hand, they
may find that employees are indifferent to privacy.
The common law courts may also find that there are inherent privacy expectations in the
workplace and that a business can injure employees by violating these expectations.
The specific problem of employee e-mail privacy is one of many that will be solved by
technological advances and the growing ubiquity of computing devices. As Internet access
and e-mail make their way into more homes and mobile devices, fewer workers will need
or want to use their office computers for personal functions. They will be able to conduct
private communications over their own devices, and use business devices for business
Privacy: Computer-Use Monitoring Practices and Policies of Selected Companies
General Accounting Office (September 27, 2002)