Stop looking over my shoulder!

Prospect, a 150,000-member U.K. trade union for technology professionals, recently reported that nearly one in three U.K. workers is now being monitored by their employer both at the job site and in their own homes. This is not acceptable. And it never has been.

As Prospect General Secretary Mike Clancy said, “We are used to the idea of employers checking up on workers, but when people are working in their own homes, this assumes a whole new dimension. New technology allows employers to have a constant window into their employees’ homes, and the use of the technology is largely unregulated by the government. We think that we need to upgrade the law to protect the privacy of workers and set reasonable limits on the use of this snooping technology, and the public overwhelmingly agrees with us.”

It’s not just the U.K. Here in the U.S., according to Top10VPN, a virtual private network (VPN) review site, employee surveillance software usage jumped 54% last year during COVID-19’s first waves—and it’s only continued to grow since then.

Workers don’t like it, but the law, in the U.S., is actually on the employers’ side. The Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA), prohibits third parties from intercepting and disclosing electronic communications. But the ECPA permits employers to monitor their staff’s spoken and electronic communications made, “in the ordinary course of business.” The related Stored Communications Act (SCA) covers the seizure of stored electronic communications—emails, groupware conversations (à la Slack), and instant messages. The SCA also enables managers to access stored information beyond the ordinary course of business. For example, if you sent a love note to your special friend via company email, forget having any expectation of privacy.

And if you’re using a company communications system, whether it’s your business’s Zoom, a Microsoft Teams instance, or whatever, if a business is paying for a service, it’s theirs, not the employee’s.

So, I can understand electronically supervising employees within limits. For example, quite a few years back, a friend’s company suddenly had an in-house server slow down for no reason. Then they found an employee had been using corporate hard drives to store a truly impressive porn collection, which had gone over the 80% of all available storage mark. Whoops!

Copyright © 2021 IDG Communications, Inc.

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