Friday, February 29, 2008

Corporation's Role in a Surveillance Society

Harvard Business recently launched an online discussion on the role of corporations in a surveillance society. The lead article was written by Gill Corkindale from London. It is not surprising that the issue was brought up by someone from London. London is now the most surveilled city in the world. It is estimated that there are 4.2 million CCTV cameras in Britain. They are not the general types of cameras in shops, banks, homes and offices for security reasons. They are in public places and are collectively watched by dedicated personnels looking out for criminal, unruly or just undesirable behaviour, all in the name of national security.

At the same time, employers are increasingly surveilling their employees by monitoring their activities through CCTV cameras in offices, examining office computer traffic, listening to conversation on office telephones and mobile phones, and reading email on company accounts. The reasons are the protection of company security and trade secrets, and prevention of abuse of resources.

There was a debate lately in Britain on the pros and cons of surveillance. One interesting point about this debate was the resounding silence from the business community. While human rights groups criticized the intrusions into our private lives, and lawyers, politicians and police debated their public roles and responsibilities, no business voices joined the debate. On legitimacy, the British government has approved the use of evidence gained from surveillance to be used in court following an independent recommendation. On the business side, the independent U.K. human rights group Liberty advised that employers would be allowed to monitor staff through CCTV so long as the use of cameras was “necessary and proportionate to management needs”, and that there should be a system of staff complaint if they felt the use of monitoring systems was intrusive or invaded their privacy.

Managers would love the rule on “necessary and proportionate management needs”. Bureaucrats in any large organization would be the experts in interpreting the rule to suit their appropriate needs.

The discussion of Harvard Business is interesting. All participants resented the intrusion to their privacy through surveillance. However, most of them were understanding and forgiving on government surveillance, regarding it as a necessary evil. I think it is probably an aftereffect of terrorist attacks and the solving of some serious criminal cases. On the other hand, they were less tolerant to surveillance by employers. Many people would regard using office telephones and stationery for personal use, or chatting personal matters on office time, or just daydreaming in the office as part of the perks. They felt that office email and internet connection were also perks. People did all these all the time and the attitude was "catch me if you can". With modern surveillance technology, they were caught. Ain't we all doing all these things in the office then and now? If you know that your employer knows about it, would you do it?