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Jennifer Vogel

The many ways
bosses spy on

Bosses read e-mails, plant cameras, listen to your phone conversations, and gather urine - and it's legal. But there are steps you can take.

If you're reading this at work, your boss may be reading right along with you. That's right, check up in that corner. Is that a camera? Are you sure? And don't forget about the computer network that allows your boss to read any file on your hard drive at any time and count your keystrokes per hour. He or she may even be tracking the websites you visit. People have been fired you know, for looking at the wrong websites while at work. Should you decide to discuss this article with your friends or co-workers over the phone system or through e-mail, be careful what you say. The boss is there too.

You may be wondering, how can my boss get away with this? Don't I have rights? The short answer is, no, not really. While the Constitution dictates that police and other government agents almost always need a warrant to search a home or listen in on a phone conversation, the workplace is different. It's the domain of bosses and managers. They literally own the office, the phone, the computer, and, in a sense, you the employee. And they can do just about anything they want as long as it's not done in a discriminatory manner. Working in today's offices is a little like living during the Red Scare of the '50s, when slogans like "Don't tell your neighbor anything you wouldn't tell Stalin" were popular. Except that in your office, the paranoia is justified.

It's hard to point to any one thing that has led us to this era of spying, but it's partly due to a changed relationship between worker and boss. All through the '50s, '60s, and '70s, employers needed us. And they were willing to pay -- wages were on the rise, reaching an all-time high in real dollars in 1973. Most families could live on one 40-hour-a-week income.

But the picture has changed. Thanks mainly to automation and capital flight, there are fewer decent-paying jobs to go around and real wages have slipped dramatically since 1973, with the exception of a small upturn in the last year and a half. Employers have taken advantage of the upper-hand, hiring more people on a contract basis to avoid insurance and other costs, breaking and/or discouraging unions, and invading our privacy in any way they can.

Business owners argue that they're so nosy because they face extreme circumstances --rising insurance costs, the need to protect trade secrets. "Employers are under unprecedented pressure to be productive, but instead of responding by empowering their workers to be more creative, they've cracked down with sweatshop techniques. It's just like the 1920s, except by electronic means", explains Lewis Maltby, director of the ACLU's Workplace Rights Office.

Or, as Doug Henwood, publisher of the excellent newsletter Left Business Observer, puts it, "They know they're screwing their workers and they know their workers would like to screw them. So, they try to monitor and control them as much as possible."

This level of workplace paranoia hasn't existed since Henry Ford sent committees around to workers' homes to see what newspapers they read. To insure that they don't hire a lemon, managers subject potential employees to background checks and batteries of invasive tests, from drug urinalysis to lengthy personality tests (the lie detector, once a pre-employment tool in about 1 million cases a year, was effectively outlawed for that purpose in 1988 because of its notorious inaccuracy.)

Psychological tests -- used by up to 40 percent of American companies, according to a recent survey by the American Management Association International -- are designed to throw up red flags indicating laziness, a propensity to steal, and even sympathy to unions.

Unfortunately, very few countries have any laws restricting employer spying. A 1986 US amendment prohibits employers from deliberately eavesdropping on employees' personal telephone calls (they're supposed to hang up when the call turns personal), it offers no real protection from, say, hidden cameras. A recent survey by the Society for Human Resources Management found that 11 percent of companies asked regularly use video cameras to monitor their workers.

But there's something even more frightening on the horizon -- genetic testing. While screening employees or job applicants for predisposition to costly diseases isn't yet widespread (probably because the testing is so pricey) there is already evidence of this kind of thinking.

Nobody likes to be spied on. And the invasiveness of these practices hasn't been missed by the American public. A poll by Time magazine a few years ago found that 95 percent of Americans believe employers should not be allowed to listen in on phone conversations; 67 percent thought employers should not have the power to check the credit history of job applicants; 56 percent did not think employers should be able to scan work areas with video cameras.

The trouble is, it's risky to do battle when the penalty could be your job. If someone has to choose between ripping out a camera and feeding their kids, what choice to do they have? They keep putting food on the table and live with the camera.

There are things you can do to protect yourself. For instance, to keep your e-mail and phone conversations private, the best thing you can do is wait until you get out of the office to discuss personal matters. If you need to talk about an issue while you're at work, take a break and go outside the office. 

Source: Weblab Organization


plant: (in this context) install (instalan)
gather urine: collect urine for analysis (recogen orina)
your keystrokes
: your typing speed on your PC (tu velocidad de tipeo)
fired: sacked, dismissed (despedidos)
get away with: escape from (zafar de, escapar de)
domain: territory (dominio, territorio)
own: are the proprietors of (son los dueños de)
on the rise: rising, increasing (en aumento)
upturn: improvement (mejora)
nosy: curious, inquisitive (curiosos)
sweatshop: a place where people work long hours for poor pay (taller de explotación)
screwing: intimating, defeating (intimando)
lemon: foolish or incompetent employee (empleado incompetente)

outlawed: declared illegal (declarado ilegal)inaccuracy: absence of accuracy, having errors (ineficacia, falta de exactitud)
survey: market research (estudio de mercado)
laziness: apathy and inactivity at work (pereza)
eavesdropping: listening (without the speaker's knowledge) (escuchando sin autorización)
to hang up: to put a telephone receiver back in its cradle (colgar el receptor del teléfono)
screening: checking (controlar)
: high-price, expensive (caro)
to be spied on: to be listened or watched without knowledge (que lo espíen)
poll: opinion inquiry (encuesta)
ripping out: breaking, destroying (arrancar, destruir)
get out of: leave (sales de, te retiras de)