Anxious to prevent the spread of confidential data, many companies monitor their employees. But Tony Glover argues that where personal privacy begins and ends is a complex issue.
Is Big Brother on his way to the office?
In their pressing desire to stop staff wasting work time on social networking sites and other leisure media, organisations are adopting increasingly sophisticated technology to keep a close watch on employees.
Microsoft, for example, owns a patent for technology that would enable organisations to monitor not only employees' behaviour on computers and smartphones but also record and examine their physical gestures. The Seattle software giant believes it could then enable employers to analyse staff behaviour to iron out organisational inefficiencies.
Microsoft is, however, only one of a growing number of IT companies now preparing to cash in on organisations' attempts to draw a clear dividing line between work and play.
"Microsoft, along with many vendors and enterprise telecoms service providers, is moving fast to develop mobile device management services to enable companies to manage control of corporate data across both employee-owned and enterprise-provisioned devices," says Adrian Drury, a lead analyst at the research company Ovum.
Corporate control of the way in which employees access digital communications is further complicated by the fact that many staff now carry powerful mobile devices they have bought themselves.
"The problem facing the enterprise mobile communication industry is employees bringing their own smartphone devices into work in order to access private communications and entertainment media," Mr Drury says.
Employers are now increasingly concerned staff may be neglecting their duties. With little idea whether staff who are seen to be tapping furiously on keyboards while riveted to their screens are actually working or merely talking to friends on social media sites, a growing number of organisations therefore feel that they should now start monitoring their employees' activities not only on PCs but also on mobile phones far more closely than in the past.
There is also another, and potentially more serious, problem created by staff using their personal devices to access company information. Internet hackers use many types of sophisticated software tools and traps to break into corporate IT systems. These can easily copy passwords or entry codes used by naive or careless staff wishing to access corporate data from their private laptop or smartphone.
"Employees are also using personal devices to access company data and information, such as email, distributing potentially sensitive information on to devices over which the enterprise has no technical or legal control," Mr Drury says. "This is creating a challenge to traditional data security, governance and IT service desk strategies."
But whatever the reasoning behind employee surveillance, using technology to monitor staff movements and behaviour raises serious questions about employee privacy. The blurring of work and leisure could mean employers monitoring the personal as well as work behaviour of staff. In George Orwell's prophetic classic science-fiction novel 1984, TV screens also watch the viewer. The technology patented by Microsoft would enable any organisation to spy on its staff in a similar way.
"Having a system such as this one monitor, assist and report back feels at first glance somewhat Orwellian," says Carole Theriault, a senior consultant at the cyber security firm Sophos. "But there is no question that the roles of the manager and HR rep are becoming increasingly difficult."
Although companies often speak of empowering staff, most organisations are increasingly wary of the extent they are unable to monitor their activities during working hours or protect their internal IT systems against hacker attacks.
"In the last decade or so, many companies have provided internet access to employees, given them laptops and smartphones, allowed more employees to work from home or work flex hours," Ms Theriault says.
"With this increased flexibility for employees, employers are perhaps feeling a loss of visibility and control over productivity and are unsure how to get it back."
There may, however, already be enough momentum behind organisations' desire to monitor staff behaviour more closely to overcome employees' privacy fears. Some industry watchers are confident that in many areas there are already legal checks in place that would effectively safeguard employees' personal privacy.
"In the US and Europe, there is legislation in place protecting the rights of employee data from their employers, but likewise regulated industries such as financial services must be aware of implications attempts by employees to access to company data on their own smartphones can have on their compliance processes," Mr Drury says.
But there may still be staff concerns that employers are becoming too intrusive. The technology outlined by Microsoft and similar technologies being developed by other communications companies would allow managers to build a complete profile of the way in which employees react with clients and with each other. Not only would staff know that the human resource department was trawling through every communication they make, they would also be aware that even their body language was under constant surveillance and appraisal.
Microsoft was unavailable for comment.