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Computer Privacy Annoyances by Dan Tynan

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Working for the Man

Of course, somebody might already be reading your email and logging what web sites you frequent. He may be listening to your phone conversations and secretly photographing you. He could be talking to your friends and associates about you and tracking your movements. He might be examining the content of your bloodstream and the depths of your psyche. And he’d be doing all of it without breaking a single law.

That somebody would be your boss.

By nearly every measure, employer surveillance is on the rise. According to surveys by the American Management Association, around two-thirds of employers monitor Web use on the job and half scan your email. More than a third poke around your hard drive, and one out of five admits to using software that keeps a running record of everything an employee does on his or her computer.

The spying goes well beyond your desktop. More and more firms are relying on pre-employment background checks, notes Beth Givens, Director of the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse. According to The Society for Human Resource Management (http://www.shrm.org), 80 percent of large employers conduct background screens on job applicants, nearly twice as many as eight years ago (see Figure 1-3). While employee drug testing has declined in recent years, 2 out of 3 companies continue to test job applicants. And your personnel files may be an open book to nosy employees looking to steal your information. According to a study by Michigan State University, employee records are the single largest resource for identity thieves. In most cases, the courts have ruled that you give up nearly all expectations of privacy when you join a corporation. (The rules for government employees are better, but only slightly.) Even so, you aren’t entirely without rights at work. Recent changes to credit reporting laws give you access

With thousands of low-rent web sites hawking background checks on the cheap, even small businesses can afford to check up on their employees (or business associates, spouses, neighbors, etc).

Figure 1-3. With thousands of low-rent web sites hawking background checks on the cheap, even small businesses can afford to check up on their employees (or business associates, spouses, neighbors, etc).

to your personnel files, including information such as your driving or criminal record and interviews with friends and neighbors obtained about you during a background check. Courts have established limits on the kinds of information a company can collect on you and how they can do it.

Over the years many employers have been caught red-handed illegally collecting or misusing data. For example, Hilton Hotels was sued by a former sales manager who was fired because a background check indicated he’d done time in prison—inaccurately, as it turned out. A trucking firm in California got nailed for installing video cameras in employee bathrooms. Wal-Mart was fined nearly $7 million by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission for asking questions that violated the Americans with Disabilities Act. Burlington Northern Santa Fe Corporation paid more than $2 million in fines to the EEOC for secretly performing genetic testing on employees who’d filed health claims against the railroad. An appliance rental firm had to pay a $2.2 million settlement for using a pre-employment questionnaire that asked about applicants’ sexual proclivities.

How did these firms get nabbed? Because employees knew their privacy rights were being violated (see Table 1-2), and did something about it. (For more on how to protect your privacy on the job, see Chapter 4.)

Table 1-2. Do you know your privacy rights at work? Answers are at the end of this chapter.

Pop Quiz

True

False

1. My boss can require me to take a lie detector test

  

2. My boss can search my office, desk, or bag

  

3. My boss can ask me to submit to genetic testing to determine if I’m an insurance risk.

  

4. My boss can fire me because of something he found during a background check.

  

5. My boss can ask about my criminal history during my job interview

  

6. My boss can ask about my mental health history during my job interview

  

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