Right To Privacy
The United States federal government should significantly increase protection of privacy in one or more of the following areas: employment, medical records, and consumer information.
The question of workplace privacy is a tricky one; in order to come up with a workable solution, one must balance the separate, and often conflicting, needs and expectations of employers and employees. In this essay, three types of workplace privacy issues will be discussed: e-mail and other office communications, employee drug testing, and the use of background checks.
E-mail has rapidly become a staple of the modern office. Currently, two-thirds of employees in medium and large companies in the United States now have Internet access, compared with fifteen percent only two years ago. The availability of e-mail allows for messages to be widely and rapidly distributed, improving efficiency and reducing cost. In addition to being one of the components of the new workplace, e-mail is also the center of a hot privacy debate. Part of this is because, unlike regular mail, which is difficult to monitor, e-mail can be scanned with ease, allowing employers to engage in monitoring at an unprecedented rate, and raising the specter of a workplace free of privacy. As this relatively new technology gains ever increasing prevalence, certain questions arise, mainly, "How do we balance employee expectations of/right to privacy, with the rights of employers to observe employees to ensure quality, prevent leaks of proprietary information, and limit exposure to litigation?"
Employers have a strong interest in monitoring the communications of their employees. Employees engaging in illegal acts, distributing proprietary information or sending sexually explicit or harassing e-mails are a serious threat and liability to the employer. For example, an employer can be held financially responsible for an employee's sexual harassment, as was the case in Burlington Industries, Inc. v. Ellert. In this case, Burlington was held liable for damages incurred by an employee, even though no complaint had been filed regarding the harassment. The court ruled that regardless of a complaint, an employer had a duty to investigate if there was a perceived culture of harassment. Obviously, in order to prevent lawsuits like this one, an employer should have the right to monitor office communications. Also, in situations regarding the commission of illegal acts, such as in Burlington v. Ellert, or in the release of proprietary information, the employer has a right, and sometimes even a responsibility, to monitor employee communications. In these cases, the employer's rights can be equally compelling as the employee's rights to privacy.
However, employees should be given some measure of privacy. Privacy, along with being a human right, facilitates the free creation and distribution of ideas. If there were no private space within a company, it would most certainly have a chilling effect on the possibilities for free speech and creative thought. Employee monitoring programs also have less tangible negative effects. In companies that engage in particularly invasive types of surveillance, such as keystroke monitoring, employees have far greater reported stress levels, and are more venerable to other disorders, such as carpal tunnel syndrome. Also, employees have privacy protections based upon their reasonable expectations of privacy. For example, there is no question that it would be inappropriate for an employer to place video cameras in the employee changing area, as a reasonable person would find this type of monitoring highly offensive.
Employers are increasingly using drug tests to screen potential employees and to monitor current ones. There are good reasons for this. Employers fear loss of productivity, drug related illegal activity, and potential liability. In order to help prevent these possibilities, some employers