What is Business Surveillance?

Dale Marshall

Business surveillance is the practice of employers monitoring their employees' activities while working or using employer-provided equipment. Some forms of business surveillance are controversial because many employees claim they violate their privacy rights. Employers claim the practice is necessary for a number of reasons, such as security of proprietary information and protection against theft and vandalism.

Electronic surveillance in stores is most successful at spotting unintentional shoplifters and inexperienced thieves.
Electronic surveillance in stores is most successful at spotting unintentional shoplifters and inexperienced thieves.

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

Business surveillance may be used to protect an owner against theft.
Business surveillance may be used to protect an owner against theft.

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

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

The spread of computer viruses and other malware, such as spyware, is also of prime concern to employers, most of whom employ IT staff to establish and maintain computer security. Since much virus activity is spread from entertainment sites, what may seem like an innocent, brief visit to a movie site during one's break time may actually expose the computer, and thus the employer's network, to viruses. Instead of attempting to identify which sites are malicious, employers will simply prohibit any personal use of the Internet, and block access to websites that appear to be inappropriate for whatever reason. Such policies are enforced by the use of an ever-widening range of products that can log every keystroke an employee taps out on a keyboard, identify every page on every website visited, and record every word spoken on the telephone.

Email is an aspect of computer use that's particularly closely watched by employers. Some companies have been successfully sued for the content of email sent over their systems even when that email was unconnected to the company's business. In addition, email is a popular method of infecting a computer and its host network with malware, which is usually hidden in an email attachment. Reacting to these threats, businesses routinely monitor the content of all employee emails, discipline them for inappropriate content, and block their access to email systems other than the employer's own.

Ebeneezer Scrooge conducted business surveillance on Bob Cratchitt.
Ebeneezer Scrooge conducted business surveillance on Bob Cratchitt.

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