Is your workplace tracking your computer activities?

By: Kevin Bonsor

Workplace Eavesdropping

Cameras can monitor actions that computer programs can't.

Computer surveillance is by far the primary method of monitoring employee activity. However, employers are still using traditional methods such as eavesdropping on phone calls, storing and reviewing voice mail and video-recording employees on the job, according to the American Management Association (AMA).

"The lines between one's personal and professional life can blur with expectations of a 24-seven work week, but employees ought to engage in some discretion about personal activities carried out during the official hours of work," Ellen Bayer, AMA's human resources practice leader, said.


Currently, 78 percent of all companies use some type of surveillance system. Here is a breakdown of the methods they use:

  • Storing and reviewing computer files: 36 percent
  • Video-recording employees: 15 percent
  • Recording and reviewing phone calls: 12 percent
  • Storing and reviewing voice mail: 8 percent

­The ACLU estimates that employers eavesdrop on about 400 million telephone calls annually. Federal wiretap laws forbid eavesdropping on conversations unless one of the parties to the conversation consents, but the Electronic Communication Privacy Act of 1986 allows employers to listen to "job-related" conversations. The ECPA gives employers almost total freedom to listen to any phone conversation, since it can be argued that it takes a few minutes to decide if a call is personal or job-related.

In addition to monitoring phone conversations, employers often place video cameras in the work area to monitor employee activity. Small cameras are sometimes implanted and directed to view the computer, so that the employee's computer activity can be monitored that way.

"Privacy in today's workplace is largely illusory," Bayer said. "In this era of open-space cubicles, shared desk space, networked computers and teleworkers, it is hard to realistically hold onto a belief of private space. Work is carried out on equipment belonging to employers who have a legal right to the work product of the employees using it."

In the next section, we will further explore the legalities of workplace monitoring and answer the question of just how much privacy you can expect at work.