Workplace Surveillance: Legal and Moral Concerns
Religion & Liberty Online

Workplace Surveillance: Legal and Moral Concerns

SurveillanceAs surveillance technology continues to cost less, we live in a world in which our activities are being increasingly monitored. And it’s not just the NSA doing it–even employers are utilizing surveillance technology in the workplace. The basis for this surveillance has been to catch employees abusing work time (e.g. scrolling through Facebook posts), to protect against sexual harassment and discrimination lawsuits, and to discover if any company secrets are being leaked. It also helps deter workers from breaking the rules if they know they are being watched. Workplace surveillance is something that all employers will have to carefully consider. Take Ryan Tate, for example, the CEO of a Christian publishing firm who fired 25 employees over an anonymous email. In a recording of a business meeting that was leaked, Tate can be heard threatening to use electronic records to discover those involved.

Could employers, even Christian ones, be going too far in some cases? What happens if your employer discovers personal information that doesn’t have anything to do with work? And is this surveillance even legal, or is it an invasion of privacy rights?

Employers are allowed to monitor the equipment they provide, so your work computer or the cellphone supplied by your company are fair game. Even your personal email is subject to scrutiny if you are accessing it through your workplace network. From

Because employers compensate employees to perform their jobs, courts traditionally have granted employers a wide latitude to monitor their employees’ work performance and productivity provided that such monitoring does not violate an employee’s reasonable expectation of privacy. Courts usually act deferentially even when employers engage in electronic surveillance, such as by monitoring phone lines, e-mail accounts and Internet access, when the employer has disclosed its monitoring policy to its employees, thereby diminishing any reasonable expectation of privacy in those areas.

78 percent of all companies monitor their employees’ work through the use of network packet sniffers, computer log files, desktop monitoring programs, security cameras, and even wiretapped phones, as long as the content is work-related (though your communication may be monitored for some period before it can be determined “work related” or not). The Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA) has helped to establish the legality of these practices. It allows for the collection of “stored communication” while prohibiting the collection of electronic information that is “in transit”. So an email cannot be collected while travelling from sender to receiver, but can be accessed as soon as it is stored on either person’s computer. Kevin Bonsor of HowStuffWorks argues that these electronic communication laws contradict traditional mail laws:

If the U.S. Postal Service worked this way, no one would be allowed to open your mail as long as it were being carried to your mailbox; but the second it is placed in the mailbox and stops moving, your neighbors would be free to come over, open and read your mail. This, of course, is not how laws regarding the postal system work. It is illegal to tamper with someone else’s mail.

Many employers also include rights to surveil employees in work contracts. A few have even tried requiring employees to hand over their social media passwords, though some states have taken action against this. Also, you may be unaware that you are being monitored by your employer unless your state requires them to inform you of it, but at least there are ways to find out for yourself.

The controversy of workplace surveillance doesn’t end with the legality of it. Moral considerations also come into play. For example, while monitoring employees can increase their productivity  and conformity to the rules, does it undermine worker morale and the dignity of work? One study found that “employees who had their performance electronically monitored perceived their working conditions as more stressful, and reported higher levels of job boredom, psychological tension, anxiety, depression, anger, health complaints and fatigue”. It may also be that too much monitoring damages employer-employee relationships. Surveillance is often an easier way of making sure employees follow the rules, rather than taking the time to lead and invest in a team that operates on trust and wants to follow them.

To engage more with the moral implications of surveillance, check out Emrys Westacott’s article for Philosophy Now. He does a great job of exploring surveillance through a philosophical lens, from the idea of “God installing security cameras in the Garden of Eden” to the teachings of Hobbes and Kant, and concludes:

The upshot of these reflections is that the relation between surveillance and moral edification is complicated. In some contexts, surveillance helps keep us on track and thereby reinforces good habits that become second nature. In other contexts, it can hinder moral development by steering us away from obscuring the saintly ideal of genuinely disinterested action. And that ideal is worth keeping alive.


Chris Conrad

Chris Conrad is a summer intern at the Acton Institute. He is a recent graduate of Spring Arbor University and will soon begin a program in International Relations at Syracuse University.