U.S. Seeks Workplace E-Snooping Limits

Members of the U.S. Congress are attempting to make it illegal for employers to electronically snoop on their employees without first telling them about it.

The proposed legislation would not outlaw electronic surveillance in the workplace, but would simply make it mandatory for employers to inform new employees of company surveillance policies and to update all employees every year. The measure would also allow employees to sue their bosses for up to $20,000 (US$) if they should find they were being monitored without their knowledge.

After informing workers of company policy, employers would not be required to alert specific employees that their electronic communications — such as e-mail, Internet use and private phone conversations — were being monitored.

Bipartisan Backing

“We would never stand for it if an employer steamed open an employee’s mail, read it and put it back,” said one of the bill’s co-sponsors, Senator Charles Schumer (D-New York). “It’s the same thing with an employee’s e-mail.”

Importantly, the bill has bipartisan backing. The other sponsor is Georgia Representative Bob Barr, a conservative Republican. Charles Canaday, a Florida Republican, also supports the bill. Canaday is chairman of the House Judiciary panel, which has jurisdiction in the matter.

A more sweeping bill introduced in 1994 would have restricted certain areas of electronic surveillance in the workplace, but it failed. However, the issue of online privacy has gathered steam among privacy and consumer groups, and lawmakers feel the climate is ripe for another attempt.

Widespread Employee Surveillance

A survey by the American Management Association earlier this year showed that 73 percent of U.S. companies engage in some sort of electronic surveillance of their employees, and that 38 percent save and review employees’ e-mail.

A third of those companies are keeping their surveillance secret, according to Michael Overly, who wrote “E-Policy,” a guide for corporate executives.

Another study predicted that the market for e-mail surveillance software would increase 14-fold over the next four years, to $952 million. That study, by International Data Corp. (IDC), was funded by surveillance software maker Content Technologies.

Intellectual Property Rights

Defenders of electronic surveillance in the workplace say it is necessary to prevent theft of intellectual property. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which helped to defeat the previous bill aimed at limiting e-snooping, is said to be studying the new bill.

Proponents of online privacy in the workplace say they are not opposed to all monitoring of electronic movements by employees, but that they have the right to be informed they may be under surveillance.

“What really upsets people is the notion that they’re being watched and they don’t know it,” Jim Dempsey of the Center for Democracy and Technology told Newsday. “They don’t know how the information can be used against them.”

Privacy Movement

The bill is just one in a flurry of recent moves by a variety of interests aimed at protecting online privacy. Microsoft Corp. announced this week it is including an option in its new browser that gives users the ability to manage “cookies,” which many companies use to track online movements by consumers, and Yahoo! launched a new privacy center.

Earlier this week, House Republicans came out against the FBI’s controversial “Carnivore” electronic surveillance system and said they planned to question FBI officials. Last month, the White House imposed strict new rules and regulations regarding the use of cookies by federal agencies, after it came to light the government used them on an anti-drug site.

The House also approved an amendment that directs several federal agencies, as well as the U.S. Postal Service, to reveal how they collect personal data from people who visit their Web sites.

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