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No Use in Complaining About Intrusive Security on the Job

By Carrie Johnson
Sunday, November 4, 2001; Page L01

After terrorist attacks and biological threats, more companies are asking workers to don identification badges, undergo rigorous background and credit checks, and be on notice that their e-mail messages are open to management scrutiny.

But as businesses step up security, the new monitoring techniques make some employees nervous and fearful that their privacy will be compromised.

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In the past two weeks, several readers have contacted @Work with concerns about new, information-heavy badges they are supposed to wear or intrusive employment applications they have come across in recent job searches.

One worker at an Arlington technology services company worried that the new identification card she and co-workers must wear at all times includes not only her name but also such things as her date of birth, birthplace, ethnicity, height and weight. She said there was more information on her badge than many federal workers have to display.

Elsewhere, a Northern Virginia schoolteacher balked when she was handed a pair of background-investigation consent forms during an employment interview at a department store. Signing the forms would have authorized the retailer to talk with her neighbors and friends and to check her criminal, consumer and motor-vehicle records.

"I am mainly concerned with what happens to the reports once they are gathered and how they affect my privacy," the teacher wrote. "Will I have any privacy left?"

Advocates said that in the workplace, employees have surprisingly few privacy rights that have been affirmed by courts, especially if a firm clearly states the security and monitoring practices it has adopted.

"There is virtually no legal protection for private-sector employees that would restrict the ability of an employer to adopt any type of identification program in the workplace," said David Sobel, general counsel at the Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington.

Sobel said there have been a few lawsuits involving the monitoring of e-mail by employers, but even those mostly prove unsuccessful if a company has put its policy in writing. A company is considered to own anything on its communication system.

Workplace e-mail scans are not uncommon and could win greater acceptance in light of provisions in the anti-terrorism bill President Bush signed last week, Sobel said. The new law will allow companies to involve the government in electronic surveillance if a worker is making "unauthorized use" of a computer network.

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