What is corporate surveillance?

Ebeneezer Scrooge conducted commercial surveillance on Bob Cratchitt.

Business surveillance is the practice of employers monitoring the activities of their employees as they work or use employer-provided equipment. Some forms of corporate surveillance are controversial because many employees claim they violate their privacy rights. Employers say the practice is necessary for a variety of reasons, such as securing proprietary information and protecting against theft and vandalism.

Company surveillance can be used to protect the owner from theft.

The practice of business surveillance has been employed in one form or another for centuries. Charles Dickens recounts incidents of monitoring employees in 19th century England. For example, in A Christmas Carol, Ebeneezer Scrooge simply overhears what his employee Bob Cratchitt is doing and confronts him for wasting company resources by adding extra coal to the office fireplace.

Electronic surveillance in stores is more successful in detecting unintentional thieves and inexperienced thieves.

Many forms of business surveillance are straightforward and non-controversial. Employers involved in manufacturing, warehousing or distribution are constantly concerned about “shrinkage”, which is the loss of inventory due to theft or direct theft. Retail outlets are concerned about shoplifting, theft and other components of commercial security. As a matter of routine, most of these establishments use cameras to record activity at cash registers, displays of easily stolen items in stores, stock storage areas and any other areas deemed suitable. Prohibited activity is recorded and the company often confronts violators, firing them and/or prosecuting them as appropriate.

With the advent of the Internet and highly sophisticated telecommunications systems, opportunities for employees to misuse employer resources, as well as employers’ business surveillance capabilities, have increased enormously. As the Internet became more accessible in the mid-1990s, employees accessed it not only to perform their work tasks, but also for a wide variety of personal reasons, including chat rooms, shopping, business ventures, personal business and viewing or downloading material for personal entertainment. Employers objected because such activity was considered misuse of company time or equipment.

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The spread of computer viruses and other malware such as spyware is also a primary concern for employers, most of whom employ IT staff to establish and maintain computer security. Since many virus activities are streamed from entertainment sites, what may seem like an innocent and brief visit to a movie site during the break can actually expose the computer and therefore the employer’s network to viruses. Instead of trying to identify which sites are malicious, employers will simply ban any personal use of the Internet and block access to sites that appear to be inappropriate for whatever reason. These policies are reinforced by the use of an increasing range of products that can record every keystroke an employee types on a keyboard, identify every page on every website visited, and record every word spoken over the phone.

E-mail is one aspect of computer use that is closely watched by employers. Some companies have been successfully sued for the content of email sent through their systems, even when that email was not connected to the company’s business. Additionally, email is a popular method of infecting a computer and its host network with malware, which is often hidden in an email attachment. Responding to these threats, companies routinely monitor the content of all employee emails, discipline them for inappropriate content, and block their access to email systems other than their employer’s.

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