Computers monitor the work of about 6 million Americans each year,, including many of the civil servants who work for the federal government, the congressional Office of Technology Assessment said in a report released yesterday.
Surveillance of workers by computers -- which is much more intense and continuous than that of the most dogged human supervisor -- raises privacy questions beyond those of traditional supervision, according to the report.
"We are becoming a surveillance society," said Rep. Don Edwards, (D-Calif.), "with polygraph testing, drug testing, honesty testing, video surveillance, and now computer monitoring. People don't lose all rights to privacy just because they get a job."
The OTA report notes that some people view computer monitoring as advantageous, giving up-to-the-minute feedback on performance and an objective basis for evaluation of work. However, some unions and civil libertarians predict the creation of "electronic sweatshops" as computer monitoring becomes more widespread and intrusive.
With computers, employers can monitor the "most minute details of their employes' lives: how long they are at their work stations, how many telephone calls they handle, what they say, how long their breaks are, even how many keystrokes a typist makes," Edwards said. He called such intensive watching an "affront."
But OTA said that the great majority of clerical employes using computer terminals are not currently being monitored and evaluated for pay, promotion or discipline on that basis.
The report estimated that a significant number of federal office workers are monitored by computer, including data transcribers at the Department of Agriculture's National Finance Center and the Bureau of the Census, claim and bill examiners at the Department of Labor's Office of Workers' Compensation, contact representatives for the Internal Revenue Service, and workers in the Social Security Administration's Teleservice Centers.