Classic Computer Magazine Archive COMPUTE! ISSUE 150 / MARCH 1993 / PAGE S2

Privacy and technology. (freedom of information and invasion of privacy related to PCs) (Compute's Getting Started with Computers, Health, & the Environment)

The PC may be the ultimate tool for informational freedom, but it also can be employed to invade your privacy in ways never before imagined. Every time you renew your driver's license, use your credit card or ATM card, make a long-distance call, file an insurance claim, or log on to a commercial online service, you're feeding new information into the web of facts about you--information that anybody with a bankroll can buy. The personal information market is so big--it's worth over $1 billion a year, say experts--that there's precious little that demographers, marketeers, and professional snoops don't know about your personal life.

Freedom of Speech?

Unsettling as that is, computer-aided invasions of privacy on the job can be much worse. Take e-mail, for example. In many corporate e-mail systems, there's little or no privacy of communication, since any message can be read by supervisors. Even if it's possible to send private messages, the e-mail administrator can still find out how many such messages you send, and to whom. In most companies, the First Amendment doesn't apply. Persist in saying things that managers don't like, and you'll find yourself out on the street.

Big Brother is Watching

Companies further invade the privacy of workers using real-time network monitoring. With real-time monitoring, supervisors can see exactly what every employee is doing on his or her PC, down to individual keystrokes. Managers can identify workers who don't make the grade and keep up the pressure on those who do. This Orwellian level of control is actually quite common in insurance companies, airlines, phone companies, banks, and other large networked organizations.

Lack of privacy in the workplace isn't just a matter of individual rights. The stress of knowing your job is on the line with every keystroke can ruin your health. A recent study of 593 VDT operators at the telecommunications company, U.S. West, found that psychological stress contributed significantly to VDT-related illnesses. Stress factors, such as electronic monitoring and job insecurity, were linked to increased CTS and other repetitive strain injuries, chronic depression, and other health disorders. Companies spend billions of dollars to treat these problems every year, so invading worker privacy ends up costing companies more than simply letting workers work.

Protect Yourself

Organizations, such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility, are working to promote laws that protect your right to computer privacy. As yet, however, there are few laws on the books that protect the privacy of workers on a corporate network. Until new laws are passed, don't send messages on e-mail that you wouldn't want to become public. If your organization practices real-time monitoring, make the case that it's bad for your health--and for the health of the business.