J003-Content-Technological-Tyranny_SQWe hear a lot about how millennials are changing the business world to make it more employee-friendly. The BYOD movement is offered as evidence of this, and I’ve frequently heard long-time IT professionals lament the loss of control that they feel these days, as young upstarts bring with them the expectation that they’ll be able to hop online and access their social media accounts or play their online games during their break times.

The benefits of BYOD to users – convenience, customization, and control – are obvious. The benefit to the business’s  budget is reduced capital expenditure to provide company-owned devices to employees. However, the disadvantages are now rearing their ugly heads. Not only does it make for more work for the IT department insofar as troubleshooting and supporting all these different brands, models and platforms, but it also presents a serious security challenge.

We know that one of the laws of physics is that for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction, and there’s another side to this story that is no doubt a reaction to the aforementioned trend. In some companies, the pendulum seems to be swinging back the other way, with management cracking down and imposing stricter rules and more monitoring of what their workers are doing and accessing both on company premises and even on their “off” time.

A growing segment of the software industry is that of employee monitoring solutions. Many of these solutions even go as far as promising to track every moment an employee spends at work. A recent ad for one such product caught my eye because it led with the catchline: “Are your employees really working for you? Gain absolute control over your company.” Going to the web site, I read how this solution will enable you to get a complete view of any user’s activity in real time – not just web sites visited but also what apps they’re using, the connection/disconnection of external devices, printing of documents, use of files on local and network drives, deletions of data on disks and more. You can set it to take snapshots of users’ screens and can also monitor use of terminal services to access remote sites.

That claim of “absolute control” isn’t far off track. I’m not going to name this product because I don’t want to appear to be either promoting it or singling it out for criticism. There are many other similar products and services available for those companies that want or need this level of insight (some would say “intrusion”) into their employees’ activities.  The question is: How does this trend impact us all and how far will companies go in tracking everything their employees do and say?

The answer to the second question might be “Just as far as they can (technologically and legally).” This Employer as Big Brother model is gaining hold in more corners of the working world. Technology is becoming more sophisticated all the time, with the ability to go beyond even what George Orwell imagined. Privacy in the workplace is becoming an obsolete concept.

It’s not just employees’ computer usage that’s being monitored these days. Video surveillance is commonplace everywhere now; security cameras are watching (and often recording) in our homes, in stores and restaurants, on the street, and in the workplace. Supervisors track employees’ movements and locations through GPS in vehicles and on phones. Calls made on company phones are logged and even the conversations can be recorded.

Some would say that when you’re on the company’s clock, you should have no right to privacy since you’ve effectively traded it, and control over what you do, for a paycheck. Others would counter that your obligation is to get the work done, and as long as you do that, whether or not you play computer games or visit the National Enquirer web site during the day is irrelevant.  The counter to that is that by running unauthorized applications or visiting unapproved sites while connected to the employer’s network, a user exposes himself, other users of the network, and sensitive data and systems to security risks.

Some employers have gone even further and monitor not just what employees do and say at work but even what they do and say on their own time, at home – especially in regard to posting on social media. Employees have been fired over posts on Facebook, even when those posts were not made on company time or with company equipment. In some cases, the fired workers have gone to court and gotten their jobs back. In other cases, the terminations were upheld.

According to the National Labor Relations Board, some activities and speech by employees are explicitly protected under federal law, such as comments or complaints about wages, working conditions or work hours or discussion of unionization. On the other hand, some courts have upheld actions against employees for what they post on social sites; in one such case a teacher was suspended for a year for making fun of a student’s name on Facebook.

Police officers and other public officials have been fired over social media postings that their agencies deemed to constitute “conduct unbecoming,” such as the officer who was fired in 2015 for posting to Facebook a photo of himself wearing boxer shorts decorated with the Confederate flag.

The argument over whether employers have the right to terminate an employee for expressing political opinions on the Internet – whether on social media sites, email discussion groups, website forums or otherwise – is still far from settled, and the legal outcomes have been different depending on the jurisdiction and the circumstances of the individual cases. If you are an “at will” employee, your company doesn’t have to have a good reason – or any reason – to fire you, as long as you aren’t let go because of your race, religion or gender, or because you acted as a “whistleblower” regarding illegal activity or health and safety violations in the workplace.

You’re not generally considered an at-will employee if you have an employment contract for a specific time period – but be sure you read that contract thoroughly. If prohibitions against certain types of social posts (or even against all such posts) are part of an employment contract to which you agreed when you accepted the position, you might find yourself without a leg to stand on in case of disciplinary action or firing, since you could be found to be in breach of the contract. Of course, the law is a complicated thing and vary from state to state and country to country, so if you find yourself at risk of losing your job because of employer monitoring, you’ll need an attorney to sort out your rights.

Even if you can’t be fired for your social posts, though, it can be disconcerting to know that your boss is reading them – along with your email – and listening to your phone calls, or that video of you putting on your makeup at your desk or scratching itches in embarrassing parts of your body is being recorded and possibly reviewed by someone you say “hi” to every day.

Like it or not, though, we live in a surveillance society. Even in the middle of the dessert or on the deck of a ship at sea, satellite “eyes in the sky” can beam our images halfway across the world without our knowledge. The NSA reportedly can turn on your phone’s camera and use it to spy on you. Everybody and his dog (sometimes literally) is carrying or wearing a camera lately: cell phones, dash cams, webcams, body cams, cameras in glasses, GoPro-equipped helmets, and yes, even pet cams that attach to your dog’s or cat’s collars so you can find out what they were up while you were gone (or send them out into the neighborhood as undercover agents to collect photographic evidence on your neighbors).

In a constantly monitored world, there’s plenty of potential for abuse of the technology – by governments, corporations and individuals. There’s also potential to use the collected data to make our lives safer, more convenient and more efficient. Crimes can be deterred (or solved), lost children found, work done faster and more accurately. It’s up to us – through the policies we set, politicians we put in power and practices we endorse – to determine whether the future will bring limitations and balance between progress and privacy, or we’ll march further down the path to technological tyranny, at work and elsewhere.

If you want to improve your employees’ productivity, manage bandwidth and internet usage whilst also securing downloads without too much intrusion or tyranny, GFI WebMonitor might be the ideal solution for you. Try our free 30-day fully functional trial!