Electronic monitoring of employees is considered a necessity in a lot of business settings for a number of reasons. With this technology, employers can ensure that their staff members spend their work hours productively, are punctual about their office timings and are not sharing their company’s confidential information with outsiders. The latter is very important, owing to the fact that occupational fraud is becoming too widespread and causing a loss of trillions of dollars worldwide.
Monitoring can be done in many ways, one of which is installing spy software like mSpy in the person’s cell phone. There are a number of such spy apps available for all leading mobile operating systems. These apps log all of the phone’s incoming and outgoing data and upload it to an online server from where it can be accessed. Being quite user friendly and having reasonable monthly or yearly charges, spy apps are being used by company owners at large because of the much needed services they offer.
However, there have been cases of employers misusing this technology to intrude upon the personal lives of their workers. This leads us to the question, ‘To what extent can electronic monitoring be considered legal?’
The ‘Harvard Factor’
The Harvard University was reported to have spied on its faculty when a confidential e-mail was forwarded beyond the group of the concerned administration members and reached news outlets. However, it was clarified by Harvard that a rigorous investigation had first been done to find the cause, and only as a last resort did the administration decide to search all the concerned members’ e-mails to see if that particular title showed up. No e-mail was opened and the purpose of this investigation was just to ensure that such incidents did not happen in the future as the privacy of their staff members and students was important to them. The Harvard University has a policy for its faculty members stating that network-based activities on their systems are logged on a regular basis, which, however, does not include personal data or e-mails.
The step taken by Harvard seems legitimate and justified keeping the context in mind. In contrast to this, there was another case of spying that took place in Lower Merion School District in Pennsylvania. The computers issued by the district had been bugged with anti-theft software, which ended up taking pictures of students in their bedrooms using the laptop Webcams. Although the parents did sign an ‘acceptable use’ agreement before taking the laptops home, in which it was mentioned that the school district had the right to ‘monitor’ the hardware that they issued, it did not explicitly state the possible use of such spyware. Therefore, the presence of this security feature was not known to the students or to their parents. It was proven with evidence, however, that the students were dealing in drugs or engaging in inappropriate behavior. Yet, no criminal charges were filed, but the district was still forced to pay a heavy fine to the students’ parents.
Law of Spying
If there are clear-cut and unambiguous policies governing the use of spyware for security purposes, it would do many people a huge favor. The Electronic Monitoring Act in Missouri, for instance, allows workplace monitoring by employers only if the faculty has been informed earlier. Camera surveillance should never be conducted without prior notification to the people being monitored, unless there is an extreme urgency such as in a criminal investigation, in which case the authorities should be contacted first.
Without any fixed law defining the limits to the monitoring of one’s employees, how can one make sure that he/she is not crossing the border while trying to safeguard the interests of one’s company? If you were to restrict yourself to what you would consider as necessary, given that the ‘necessary’ element is only with regards to your business concerns, you will be avoiding a lot of unnecessary trouble. It is impractical to be reading every single text message and e-mail of your employee, listening to every phone call and viewing his/her entire browsing history. Any particular information that you are searching for in the logs might not even be there, yet if your employee discovers that every move he/she makes is being monitored, it will have an extremely negative impact on his/her morale and work output, making matters worse for your business.
When dealing with cases of workers suing their employers for conducting electronic surveillance in workplaces, most courts first examine whether the employee was guaranteed a certain degree of privacy which was violated by this security measure, and then whether there was a valid business purpose for this surveillance on part of the employer. In the majority of such proceedings, the courts have ruled in favor of the employers, having found a reduced expectation of privacy in the workplace and that the interests of a business outweigh the rights to privacy of an employee.