Electronic Surveillance in the Workplace

Susan Bryant (Simon Fraser University)

Abstract: A consideration of some of the existing theoretical approaches for understanding surveillance in the workplace is provided with a particular emphasis on the qualitative changes in the nature of monitoring which occur when electronic means are utilized. The current state of Canadian legislation and union positions on electronic surveillance are presented briefly in order to draw attention to the need for further theoretical and practical attention to this issue.

Résumé: Cet article présente un compte-rendu des théories contemporaines qui s'appliquent à l'analyse de la surveillance dans différents milieux de travail et, en particulier, examine comment la surveillance est en train de changer qualitativement avec l'usage de moyens électroniques. L'état de la législation canadienne et des positions des syndicats par rapport à la surveillance électronique sont brièvement présentés afin de démontrer le besoin de futures recherches, de théories, et de solutions concrètes concernant ce milieu.


This article presents the argument that the issue of electronic monitoring of information and service workers' performance requires further attention in Canada. The qualitative shift in the nature of employee monitoring should be recognized, and the issue should be addressed as part of the rising dominance of the corporation over individuals and the naturalization of this trend through the rhetoric of the "imperatives" of globalization and competitiveness. Moreover, while it is necessary and appropriate to consider workplace and consumer monitoring as separate issues, the complementarity between the two, especially in relation to economic forces, also deserves notice. In addition to a consideration of important theoretical understandings of the subject, provided herein is a brief overview of current Canadian legislative policy and of several union responses to workplace surveillance. As well, speculations are provided as to why the general issue of surveillance of the workplace has been overlooked in recent years.

The forms of monitoring on which this paper focuses include:

  • keystroke counting;
  • listening in on phone conversations (often to monitor the quality of service provided by customer service staff );
  • telephone call accounting (registering information about the time, duration, destination, and cost of phone calls made);
  • entry and exit controls using "smart cards" (enabling tracking of individuals' movements throughout a building);
  • electronic cash registers and product-scanning systems (which provide details on how much merchandise is handled by individual staff members and how quickly);
  • reading of electronic mail; and
  • use of video cameras for visual surveillance (including washrooms, in extreme cases). (After ILO, 1993, pp. 12-13)

The range of occupations susceptible to electronic monitoring is surprisingly wide. Some of the positions most likely to be monitored include: word processors, data-entry clerks, telephone operators, customer service representatives, telemarketers, insurance claims clerks, mail clerks, supermarket cashiers, and bank proof clerks (OTA, 1987; ILO, 1993). Professional and technical workers may believe that their work is too complex to be monitored successfully. However, sophisticated groupware applications and work-flow tracking systems provide an abundance of information on the status of an electronic document as it is "passed" from one professional to another. As well, electronic mail and scheduling applications provide additional potential for surveillance of employee activities and communications (Clement, 1988; ILO, 1993; Piller, 1993; Allen, 1994).

Exactly how many workers are affected by electronic surveillance is not known. Since organizations may not be especially willing to volunteer information on their monitoring practices, there may be no way of ever having exact figures on its actual extent. However, the International Labour Office (ILO) estimates that "some 20 million Americans may be subject to electronic monitoring on the job, not including telephone monitoring" (ILO, 1993, p. 25, italics added; see also Piller, 1993). Another source estimates the number, again for the United States, at 26 million and growing (Bell DeTienne, 1993). In a (very uncommon) survey of employers conducted in the United States, over 21% of companies admitted to having engaged in searches of employees' voice mail, computer files, or electronic mail, and the number admitting to such practices rises to 30% in companies with over 1,000 employees (Piller, 1993).

I must stress that I am not in any way suggesting that workplace monitoring is in itself a new practice; in fact, work has always been monitored to some degree in the capitalist workplace (and with heightened success in this century through the application of Scientific Management). The key issue here is that the nature of at least some computerized surveillance technologies permits a more extensive and, more importantly, intensive (i.e., directed to a single area or subject) degree of information gathering. In the past, employers gathered data about the quantity and quality of products produced by a whole department or unit. New information technologies enable employers to gather and analyze highly detailed performance-related data, not just about the work, but about each individual worker--in many cases on a minute-by-minute basis and often without the employee necessarily being able to detect the "watching" (OTA, 1987; Zuboff, 1988; Marx, 1990; Grant, 1992; Laabs, 1992; Gandy, 1993; Lyon, 1994). It is this relatively recent shift in the degree of the intensity of the monitoring which makes the topic of electronic surveillance one especially worthy of attention at this time.

The context in brief: Post-Fordism, globalization, and labour

It is important to consider the political economic context in which electronic surveillance of workers is evolving. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, multinational corporations began to search "the globe for new profit opportunities and were prepared to abandon their home bases to take advantage of them, taking capital and employment to wherever they judged conditions to be most advantageous" (Harvey, 1991, p. 67). In so doing, the dominance of the nation-state as an entity declined and has been replaced by that of the multinational corporation (Drache & Gertler, 1991). The implications for labour of the shift to "post-Fordist" production have been numerous. Most importantly, the "flexibility" of the new era has often meant flexibility of labour markets, including an increase in the use of sub-contracting, part-time, and /or seasonal employment in order to enable organizations to respond quickly and inexpensively to shifting demands. While this type of flexibility might actually be beneficial to some workers, for the most part employer motivations have not been to provide more varied work options for employees but rather to cut costs, including those related to pension plans, health insurance benefits, and overtime (Harvey, 1991).

The result of recent developments in employment practices is that a "dual labour market" has become firmly established in which workers in the primary, or core, market are offered high wages, training opportunities, and stable employment commitments; the flexibility which may be demanded of these workers is likely functional or geographic. Those workers in the secondary, or peripheral, market are considered to provide numerical flexibility for organizations. This category includes those with readily available skills (i.e., clerical or manual) who obtain full-time work but may experience high turnover in their employment, as well as those for whom only short-term contracts, job sharing, and /or part-time work is attainable (Harvey, 1990).

Scholars analyzing how Canada has fared to date under the production principles of "post-Fordism" provide some noteworthy critiques of the "globalization" imperative which surrounds us. Drache & Gertler note that "driving down costs becomes the single most important priority for business and state" (1991, p. 4) and that

competitiveness becomes narrowly defined on the terrain staked by private sector actors, who want a state strong enough to discipline the workforce and constrain wage movements but one which is increasingly liberal in providing industrial subsidies, tax concessions, and tax expenditures. (Drache & Gertler, 1991, p. 9)

Marjorie Cohen (1991) makes the argument that Canada's pursuit of an export-led development strategy (i.e., as opposed to what she terms an "open development strategy") has had, and will continue to have, the effect of making Canada highly vulnerable to external forces. Furthermore, she asserts, the regional disparities this country has long experienced with respect to income levels and to unemployment rates are certain to be reproduced and accelerated by free-trade policies.

In stark contrast to the concerns raised by these scholars, the rhetoric of both public policymakers and corporations tends to be centred on the urgency of becoming and remaining competitive on the global scale and on the need to increase trading relations to do so.

The theory: Increasing intensity of surveillance

As noted above, worker monitoring is not, in itself, a new practice. Nonetheless, this does not mean that the nature of supervising and controlling workers should be considered a stable, unchanging aspect of workplace relations. The introduction of the factory system constituted an important change in the degree of social control which could be exercised over workers, primarily through new possibilities for visual supervision. An even more significant change in work monitoring was thereafter introduced in the form of F. W. Taylor's Scientific Management. Through the separation of knowledge and planning of the work from its manual execution, individual tasks within each job came under scrutiny. Management's increased understanding of how work was performed enabled a form of work surveillance which was very much intensified from what had previously been possible on the shop floor. Moreover, Ford's assembly line went even further in enabling management to control and monitor the work by building the expected pace into the machinery of the line (OTA, 1987). Thus, it is important to recognize that while monitoring may be a "constant" throughout the history of industrialized production, the degree of intensity has not remained static. What, then, of the electronic age and the possibilities it presents for worker monitoring?

In Shoshana Zuboff's wide-ranging work on the implications of computerization for contemporary workplaces, she examines the issue of electronic worker surveillance in several organizations and shows how management control is freed from the constraints of space and time through electronic information systems (Zuboff, 1988). She introduces the term "information panopticon," using as her foundation Jeremy Bentham's Panopticon, the prison complex design which would enable surveillance of prisoners by guards without the watcher being observed by the watched. The creation of the sense that the "gaze is unwavering," whatever the reality, was considered to be a key design feature in influencing the behaviour of the watched. Foucault's (1979) adoption of the Panopticon as a metaphor for the operation of power in social relations is also important to Zuboff; she cites Foucault's attention to both the constant "visibility" and the "unverifiability" of the gaze of the watcher as key features of the way electronic surveillance may operate in the workplace (Zuboff, 1988, p. 321).

In what Zuboff refers to as a shift from the use of managerial power through "authority" to that exercised by way of "technique," she makes the important point that a key outcome of new computer systems is that they not only monitor the process, but also the people:

Once the system was in place, managers discovered that another parallel history was also being captured. This was the history of human decisions at the data interface, the history of operators' attentional behavior, the history of operator problem solving. Managers had learned to use the objective record as a means of deducing this behavioral history. (Zuboff, 1988, p. 316)

Moreover, it is not even necessary to have a specific idea in advance of what the data collected might be used for; they "could be retrieved and analyzed at a later date, giving rise to ever new interpretative possibilities" (Zuboff, 1988, p. 316).

David Lyon also addresses the process / worker duality of electronic workplace monitoring in his discussion of what he calls "disorganized surveillance" (1994, p. 128). He makes the argument that the features of "post-Fordism" (for example, batch production and /or demand-driven production) are often accompanied by an increased intensity of monitoring of the overall work process. Using examples from a car plant, a restaurant, a taxi dispatcher, and others, he argues that with the production /provision of specialized or small-scale goods and services, there is a heightened need--and the ability with new technologies--to know where the product is in the process at all times. However, in the example of the monitoring of all restaurant orders electronically conveyed to the kitchen, not only is much fine detail acquired about the process (e.g., inventory, customer preferences, and other production issues), but also about the discrete activities of the servers (e.g., the number of customers / tables served and the number of dollars worth of food and drink sold) without them necessarily being aware of it. Hence, Lyon argues, the post-Fordist monitoring of production processes may actually be something more complex and somewhat differently intentioned than mere electronic Taylorism (Lyon, 1994). Nonetheless, the result may be the opportunity for more extensive and intensive surveillance of individual workers.

Another qualitative change in the nature of workplace surveillance is in the fact that some individuals may actually be both observers and observed. That is, the "information panopticon" differs from Bentham's model in that it is hierarchically organized in the sense that middle managers may be both observers of their staff and observed by those above them on the organization chart (Zuboff, 1988). For example, plant managers and bank branch managers who previously had experienced high levels of autonomy in their work, and who use electronic techniques to monitor their workers, may find themselves observed through those same electronic systems by divisional or head-office executives in remote locations (Zuboff, 1988; Clement, 1988; see also Allen, 1994).

The "information panopticon" also differs from Bentham's prison design in that in some applications of workplace surveillance the gaze is not merely an unverifiable possibility but is actually a constant and continuous certainty. Whereas a telephone operator generally knows only that spot checks of her/ his interactions may be carried out periodically without warning, the supermarket cashier working with a UPC product scanner is fully aware that his / her performance (usually measured by the number of products scanned per minute or hour) is continuously recorded for review. Though not always used in this way, the electronic "watcher" is certainly capable of keeping its eyes on each and every worker at all times.

Whatever the type of surveillance application used, it is once data have been collected that power relations become especially pertinent, since choices must be made by senior management as to if/ how this information about the performance of workers (at whatever level of the organization), gathered perhaps unintentionally, is to be used. While there is certainly nothing in the data-gathering methods used which compels an organization to make use of the individual-level information, the temptation to analyze it, once it has been gathered, may be strong. This is a particularly important consideration, given the pressures emanating from the political economic context in which many firms and industries are currently operating. The ultimate priority placed on efficiency, competitiveness, and global trade has the potential to legitimize increased intensity of surveillance, with the goal of increased productivity, for many organizational leaders.

Also with respect to the economy, it is interesting to note that there would appear to be a surveillance-related complementarity to the way in which the current era of niche / batch production operates. The increased degree of surveillance which takes place within the production process interlocks with, and in some senses responds to, an increasingly detailed surveillance of the marketplace. Market research which previously gathered data about aggregates of anonymous consumers for use in mass advertising has been replaced by the highly personalized collection of market information in order to target specific individuals for receipt of promotional materials (see, for example, Gandy, 1993; Lyon, 1994; and Samarajiva, 1994, on this subject). Of course, there has long been a complementarity between the relations of production and the relations of consumption; Fordist mass production depended upon unprecedented mass consumption, for one thing (see Robins & Webster, 1988). However, what is interesting is that as we move into an era of specialty production, the complementarity of the surveillance of production and consumption becomes much more complex and, again, perhaps more easily legitimized as a "necessity" for a healthy economy.

Surveillance, however, is not always experienced as a top-down force. A phenomenon which Zuboff refers to as "anticipatory conformity," in which individuals co-operate fully in order to reduce "the risk of unwanted discovery," may enable the technologies of surveillance to operate to the same ends without management even making explicit choices about the ways data will be analyzed (1988, p. 345). This might also be referred to as worker "self-discipline," and reminds one of Foucault's (1979) argument that individuals become the "bearers of their own surveillance" (Lyon, 1994, p. 133). Moreover, even if anticipatory conformity does not play a role, given that employees have system-generated information about each other's performance, there is a reasonable chance that peer surveillance and intervention will (Zuboff, 1988; Laabs, 1992; Lyon, 1994). There are also, of course, opportunities to resist the surveillance techniques of the new systems and Zuboff's research, for one, reveals examples of employees using their detailed knowledge of the system to "get away with" doing less. However, such acts of resistance are noted to be relative exceptions to the predominant trend toward conformity (Zuboff, 1988). Moreover, in the examples Zuboff cites, employees often blamed newly implemented computer systems for mistakes or inefficiencies, something which becomes more difficult to do successfully as systems become more well entrenched, not to mention more heavily trusted, within an organization.

One explanation for why the technologies of surveillance often seem to be received with relative passivity rests in the fact that surveillance is not unambiguously experienced by individuals (Lyon, 1994). The same technologies that monitor employees' performance and behaviours may also provide security in an isolated part of the work area, enable them to be recognized and rewarded for "excellence," or to escape blame for others' mistakes (Zuboff, 1988). Such potential benefits are no doubt acknowledged by labour unions which are concerned with issues of workplace safety as well as with protecting their members from unjust accusations. A noteworthy commonality exists in this respect between worker and consumer surveillance in the sense that consumers, too, receive many benefits from surveillance-laden transactions, including convenience, safety, and even tangible rewards in the case of air travel points collection programs (see Lyon, 1994, pp. 136-157).

The work of Oscar Gandy, although primarily focused on surveillance in the consumer realm, is helpful in that it highlights the power differential at work in issues of information gathering and in issues of influencing individual behaviour. The most compelling of Gandy's (1993) arguments is that the key inequality of the power relationship which emerges is that between individuals and corporate interests. He refers to the "increasing inequality between those who provide and those who gather personal information," and suggests that "[t]he inequality that best describes the information age is not the rift between castes or classes but the widening chasm of power between individuals and bureaucratic organizations" (Gandy, 1989, p. 62, italics added). In an attempt to explain the lack of resistance to this growing inequality, he characterizes the technologies of contemporary surveillance as more efficient, more extensive, and less intrusive than their predecessors. Furthermore, he argues, "because each isolated bit of information on the [individual] has such a seemingly small `privacy cost' and because monitoring the bureaucracy's use of that information has a high cost, individuals are incapable of acting in their own interests" (Gandy, 1989, p. 66).

Given that the theoretical and field research on the issue indicates that a qualitative shift in the intensity of workplace monitoring is occurring, and that it is very difficult for individuals to "act in their own interests" given the political economic context of employee surveillance, the Canadian situation with respect to protecting workers from increasingly intrusive monitoring practices is of interest and importance.

Responses to date: Canadian legislation, public policy, union positions

With regard to legislative protection from surveillance, the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms does not explicitly guarantee the right to privacy; however, privacy has been interpreted as a fundamental value in a number of Supreme Court decisions. Although these decisions do not apply to the workplace specifically, Charter principles have been applied with respect to certain aspects of public employment (i.e., federal and provincial government employees only), including cases of unreasonable search and seizure (ILO, 1993).

The Criminal Code of Canada makes it an offence, for both public- and private-sector individuals, to willfully intercept a private communication. However, the exemptions to this law include the case where "there is no expectation that the conversation will be private," as is the case where an employer tells employees that they may be listened to at some future time (ILO, 1993).

There is nothing in the Canada Labour Code which specifically addresses electronic surveillance of workers. However, the Code requires employers bound by collective agreements with their employees to disclose information regarding plans for technological change. This type of requirement might provide a union with the opportunity to raise and debate the introduction of surveillance practices if they were a planned aspect of a technological change (ILO, 1993).

The Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act of British Columbia regulates the use by provincial government bodies of personal information about citizens. However, there is currently no protection under this or any other provincial legislation against video surveillance, telephone monitoring, or computer monitoring in the workplace (BCCLA, 1994). The only employees who may be protected in the workplace are those with a collective agreement, a number estimated at less than 30% of the total work force.

It is also worth noting how the issue of surveillance is being handled within policy discussions related to Canada's "information highway." In a recent policy document, the government focuses its full attention on the issue of privacy on the information highway and on the fact that, outside of the province of Quebec, "the rapidly expanding use and management of personal information in the private sector is virtually unregulated in Canada" (Industry Canada, 1994c, p. 11). It is in this document that the issue of workplace monitoring is raised for the first time in the discourse about the information highway. The issue of whether employee electronic mail is to be treated as a private letter or as company property is presented, and the question "Is government regulation required, or will encouraging good behaviour and fair contracting practices suffice?" is asked (Industry Canada, 1994c, p. 8). While the federal government at least acknowledges the issue of information control in its discussions of the information highway, the responses in this and other documents (see also Industry Canada, 1994a, 1994b) seem vague and inadequate.

With respect to organized labour, the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC) once produced a statement entitled "Workers' Technology Bill of Rights" (CLC, 1982), which included the statement that "new technology shall not be used to monitor, measure or otherwise control the work practices and work standards of workers and such measurement shall be prohibited by law" (p. 3). While these words represent an important and strong policy position on the part of the CLC, it is of concern to note that the issue of workplace surveillance has not been returned to by the organization since 1982 (K. Hayes, Senior Economist, Social and Economic Policy, Canadian Labour Congress, Ottawa, personal communication, October 10, 1994). Additionally, from the review of the legislation presented above, it becomes clear that the call for legal prohibition of electronic surveillance in the workplace has not been successful.

The Canadian Union of Postal Workers (CUPW) is perhaps one of the most successful union bodies in protecting its members from individual-level surveillance. Their members' collective agreement states that surveillance (by video or other means) can only be used to measure the productivity of a group, section, or office, and that no individual performance measurement is permitted. As well, the video surveillance system is explicitly for the purposes of protecting the mail and may not be used to evaluate performance or assign disciplinary measures (ILO, 1993). The Telecommunications Workers' Union (TWU) also reports that its collective agreement stipulates that electronic surveillance cannot be used as evidence for evaluation and disciplinary purposes (S. Shniad, Research Director, Telecommunication Workers' Union, Vancouver, personal communication, October 28, 1994).

On the other hand, several of the other unions contacted for this research (including the Public Service Alliance of Canada, the British Columbia Government Employees' Union, and the British Columbia Federation of Labour) reported having no current, broad policy on electronic workplace surveillance (T. Johnson, Researcher, Public Service Alliance of Canada, Ottawa, personal communication, October 12, 1994; PSAC, 1994; M. Sykes, Director, Occupational Health and Safety Issues, British Columbia Government Employees' Union, Victoria, personal communication, December 2, 1994; and T. Fawkes, British Columbia Federation of Labour, Vancouver, personal communication, October 6, 1994).

What is disturbing about these findings is that they indicate a lack of attention to the issue of workplace surveillance on the part of some of the very organizations which might be most able to address the topic by bringing it into the collective-bargaining realm. Furthermore, what of the approximately two thirds of the Canadian work force not represented by unions? It seems that legislation and public policy, although moving forward somewhat with regard to publicly held information about individuals as citizens, are very weak when it comes to protecting individuals as employees. Hence, non-unionized Canadian workers remain virtually completely unprotected from employer surveillance through legislation, and unionized employees appear to fare, in many cases, only somewhat better through their collective agreements.

This lack of protection from workplace surveillance, it should be noted, is likely to be exacerbated by the (gradual but noteworthy) growth of telecommuting as a work option. Labour unions fear that it will be more difficult to organize, communicate with, and effectively represent their members (see Illingworth, 1994; PSAC, 1994). And for all telecommuters, unionized or not, there is an increased potential for electronic surveillance to be rationalized by employers--"since we can't see you, it only makes sense that we must supervise you electronically" might be the argument made. And if a telecommuter works under electronic surveillance, there exists a convergence of bureaucratic/corporate surveillance of worker and consumer data to one site, that of the home. Moreover, any hope that government legislation might be developed to regulate such a potential situation is tempered by the fact that the federal and some provincial governments are leading the way in implementing telecommuting as a means of obtaining increased (organizational) flexibility and of increasing productivity (see HRDC, 1992; Robertson & Muir, 1993).

Why so little action? Some speculations

One of the reasons why little attention may have been paid to the issue of workplace surveillance may involve the use, in some cases, of the concept of privacy as the framework (see, for example, Flaherty, 1992; BCCLA, 1994; Industry Canada, 1994c). While worker privacy is clearly one of the issues in electronic monitoring, it does not seem a broad enough concept to fully encompass the relationships involved. One of the difficulties with conceptualizing workplace monitoring as a privacy issue is that it frames individuals as having an assumed set of rights as participants in a free and equal contract arrangement, and does not account for the power relations implied in the labour contract. If/when workplace monitoring is changed or intensified, the concept of privacy invites consideration of workers as individuals with personal dignity concerns, rather than focusing on the changing nature of or increase in worker exploitation which may be occurring (Regan, 1993). Furthermore, privacy may be conceived of, in some cases, as the right to conceal information about oneself--a framework which seems certain to form an unsuccessful argument to present to an employer! As well, the protection of individual interests is sometimes perceived as being in opposition to collective interests--in particular with respect to the right to "withhold" information about oneself--and may prove to be a difficult basis on which to mobilize group or social concern and action (Regan, 1993). My argument here is not that the status quo is good enough and should not be questioned, but merely that the rubric of privacy may not be the right framework for initiating a discourse on this issue.

Related to the difficulties with the concept of privacy is Gandy's argument, presented above, that each piece of information surrendered by the worker or the consumer has a seemingly small "privacy cost" attached to it relative to the huge costs involved in making changes to the system (1989). There is a cumulative effect to the changes taking place which may not be clearly understood at the level of each act of surveillance. The gradual changes being made to the workplace or the seemingly minor pieces of information that are obtained, one by one, by corporate marketers seem trivial, hardly worth the careful consideration and energy required to resist. Hence, individuals and groups may be lulled into inaction by the seemingly inconsequential nature of the changes taking place.

There is also the reminder which Lyon provides: that our relationships with the technologies of surveillance are not completely unambiguous (1994). Many of these technologies provide us with convenience, pleasure, safety, and possibly even the means to recognition and reward. In the specific case of the workplace, post-Fordist modes of production may change the nature of the work, perhaps permitting greater apparent individual autonomy. The appropriate literary metaphor, then, is possibly much more the seduction of Huxley's Brave New World than the heavy-handed control found in Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four (see Lyon, 1993). However, we must also recognize that there may be an inclusive and an exclusive nature to the benefits: post-Fordism may make work life much more rewarding for some and more oppressive for others.

The harsh economic environment of the past several years may also help to explain the relative lack of attention paid by organized labour to surveillance. When increasing efficiency by controlling labour costs (often framed within the rhetoric of "flexibility") is the strategy of many employers (see Drache, 1991), job losses and wages are the focus of the energies of labour unions. A "condition of work" issue such as surveillance may be considered secondary during difficult economic times (see also Lyon, 1988). Moreover, "anticipatory conformity" is likely to be heightened during times of recession and /or employment cutbacks.

With respect to the potential for legislative responses to surveillance, Gandy, referring to Flaherty's work, points out the "inherent tension that keeps the state from acting aggressively to restrict the development and use of any technology, especially new forms of information technology that are seen to be the wave of the future, which might carry a troubled economy into the next Kondratieff upswing" (1993, p. 229). This observation seems especially relevant given the current Canadian (and North American) drive for global competitiveness through increased exports and trade. Governments that are currently committed to economic growth are unlikely to legislate restrictions in the use of workplace information technologies which, through performance monitoring and a range of other means, might contribute to a rise in Canadian competitiveness.

Furthermore, with respect to legislative options, it must also be noted that most existing legislation which addresses consumer "privacy" issues "places the responsibility on the individual to indicate that they do not want their names used" and that most citizens "generally have only limited awareness of the nature of the list industry and of the opportunities that might be available for them to have their names withdrawn" (Gandy, 1989, pp. 72-73, italics added). Similarly, the effectiveness of legislation restricting workplace surveillance applications would likely be dependent on the awareness levels of individuals as well as on their willingness and ability to speak up against their "watchers."


It is important that workers and those interested in conditions of work not be lulled into believing either that workplace monitoring is much as it has always been, or that any changes to the quality of monitoring are merely "natural" readjustments to the new competitiveness of global market operations. In spite of the potential obstacles, protection from increasingly intensive electronic surveillance of employees must be sought. At some point in the near future, more comprehensive regulation of workplace surveillance may be necessary and appropriate. This is particularly so since legislation is probably the only measure which would provide protection for all workers, including those not represented by organized labour.

It should be acknowledged that some form of voluntary guidelines, to be adopted by employers on an industry-by-industry basis, might, to some extent, respond to this issue. Like the legislative option, the strength of such an approach would be its potential for a relatively broad coverage of workers. However, it is also fraught with many of the problems of legislation raised below--specifically, concerns about the will of business to implement and adhere to such guidelines.

Legislation which covers all workplaces may be required. However, given the political economy in which surveillance operates, it is not difficult to be sceptical about government's will or ability to move in this direction. Gandy makes the point that within a liberal marketplace "some participants...have incentives and resources which allow them to influence how others understand their interests" and, furthermore, that "the state is more often than not led to intervene on behalf of those with greater resources, rather than on behalf of those with the greatest need" (Gandy, 1988, pp. 109-110). Further acknowledging the context in which such analysis must be placed, Gandy goes on to note that the task of initiating a process to raise public consciousness regarding the growing inequalities with respect to information "flies directly in the face of a cultural acceptance of efficiency as the driving moral and social imperative" (1988, p. 121). These obstacles notwithstanding, legislation still seems to be the most viable approach to strive for.

At a general level, legislative measures must address the shift from monitoring processes to that of monitoring individuals by requiring organizations to find measures which enable them to gather productivity-related data without necessarily increasing the individual-level intensity of the surveillance. Moreover, where information of an employee-specific nature is collected, perhaps as explained by the concept of "disorganized surveillance," the uses to which that data can be put must be severely limited. And as much as is possible, the onus should be on the employer, and not on the worker, to ensure that electronic surveillance is carried out in an acceptable manner.

More specifically, workers must be informed about what surveillance tools are currently being used in their workplace and be provided with intelligible information as to what management does with the data. Employees should be invited to participate fully in decisions regarding how and when electronic monitoring takes place. And, perhaps most importantly of all, employees must be permitted to inspect, challenge, and, when appropriate, have corrected the data gathered about them or their performance. The detailed outcomes of such negotiations would likely vary across firms and industries. In negotiating the specific terms of electronic monitoring, it would be important for employees to distinguish between the wholly panoptic type of unverifiable surveillance and that which is known to be continuous. In some cases, and likely varying from organization to organization, one form might be considered more desirable, or at least more acceptable, than the other. And within each firm, the conditions agreed to by employees would have to be reconciled with the overall monitoring strategy being adopted.


I would like to thank Catherine Murray, Pris Regan, Pat Howard, and two anonymous reviewers for their helpful comments on earlier drafts of this article. It is based on a paper presented at the annual conference of the Canadian Communication Association, Montreal, June 2-5, 1995.
As should be evident from this list, the focus of my analysis herein is on monitoring related to employee performance, and not on monitoring of personal characteristics or habits such as those probed through drug-testing, genetic screening, or psychological testing.
Some of the reasons given by employers for choosing to monitor their employees are salient to this discussion. The rationale for surveillance may be to: raise productivity and competitiveness; ensure the quality of customer service; comply with laws and regulations; train and supervise staff; ensure a safe workplace; protect the organization's assets and property; and reward excellence by identifying top performers (based on ILO, 1993, p. 17).
Although extreme, one example of the type of surveillance to which I am referring is found at Electronic Banking System Inc., a Maryland, U.S. company which processes direct-mail ad responses. The company has been described as follows: "The employees, who make $6.00 per hour, work at their computers under rigid supervision. The office windows are covered, to prevent distraction. Conversation unrelated to business is forbidden. Desks all face in the same direction, toward a pedestal where a boss stands like a schoolmaster...and eight TV cameras are always ready to zoom in on a desk and spot any infraction of the rule that material unrelated to work must not be displayed. Employees must make 8,500 keystrokes an hour, and any failure to achieve this norm is electronically noted and punished" (Fulford, 1994, p. A12).

Another example is found at the reservations offices of a major airline where employees "punch in and out of three units; the time clock, the VDT, and the telephone keypad....The VDT and [telephone keypad] track every second of [the] day" and employees are "allowed 11 seconds between calls and 12 minutes of personal breaks daily. Two episodes of unauthorized unplugged time in a week [are] cause for disciplinary action" (Piller, 1993, p. 118).

A more general example is that of a piece of software called Game Cop. Produced by a California-based company, the application is installed in each employee's personal computer and is capable of recognizing over 100 computer games. When employees play a computer game at their desk, the application either produces an on-screen memo reminding them to "be more productive" or, if management has selected the software's more extreme option ("for those employees needing harsher discipline," according to the company's promotional material), a siren goes off which alerts the whole office to the game-playing (Analytic Concepts, 1994).

In some cases, the concept of privacy is the only framework in which workplace monitoring is considered. Therefore, where applicable, the legislation and policies which address privacy are also considered in this section.
Telecommuting is a work arrangement in which employees of an organization do some or all of their work from home using information and communication technologies to connect them to their work and their employer, colleagues, and /or clients.
It should be noted that the concept of privacy might be useful in a consideration of workplace monitoring of a highly personal, invasive nature such as drug testing, genetic testing, and polygraph administration. However, my interests in this research, as stated at the outset, are in the electronic monitoring of performance.
See Piller, 1993, for his "model employment-privacy policy" from which some of the ideas presented in this paragraph are drawn.


Allen, J. P. (1994). Mutual control in the newly integrated work environments. The Information Society, 10, 129-138.

Analytic Concepts. (1994). Promotional material for Game Cop software. San Jose, CA.

Bell DeTienne, K. (1993, September-October). Big brother or friendly coach? Computer monitoring in the 21st century. The Futurist, pp. 33-37.

British Columbia Civil Liberties Association (BCCLA). (1994). The privacy handbook: A practical guide to your privacy rights in B.C. and how to protect them. Vancouver: BCCLA.

Canadian Labour Congress (CLC). (1982). Workers' rights in the Silicon Age. 1982 Convention. Ottawa: CLC.

Clement, A. (1988). Office automation and the technical control of information workers. In V. Mosco & J. Wasko (Eds.), The political economy of information (pp. 217-246). Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press.

Cohen, M. (1991). Exports, unemployment and regional inequality: Economic policy and trade theory. In D. Drache & S. Gertler (Eds.), The new era of global competition: State policy and market power (pp. 83-101). Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press.

Drache, D. (1991). The systematic search for flexibility: National competitiveness and new work relations. In D. Drache & S. Gertler (Eds.), The new era of global competition: State policy and market power (pp. 251-269). Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press.

Drache, D., & Gertler, S. (1991). The world economy and the nation-state: The new international order. In D. Drache & S. Gertler (Eds.), The new era of global competition: State policy and market power (pp. 3-25). Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press.

Flaherty, D. (1992). Telecommunications privacy: A report to the CRTC. Ottawa: Supply and Services Canada.

Foucault, M. (1979). Discipline and punish: The birth of the prison. New York: Vintage Books.

Fulford, R. (1994, December 14). Tolerating electronic sweatshops. The Globe and Mail, p. A12.

Gandy, O. H. (1988). The political economy of communications competence. In V. Mosco & J. Wasko (Eds.), The political economy of information (pp. 108-124). Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.

Gandy, O. H. (1989). The surveillance society: Information technology and bureaucratic social control. Journal of Communication, 39(3), 61-76.

Gandy, O. H. (1993). The panoptic sort: A political economy of personal information. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

Grant, R. (1992, May). Work monitored electronically. HR Magazine, pp. 81-86.

Harvey, D. (1990). The condition of postmodernity: An enquiry into the origins of cultural change. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

Harvey, D. (1991). Flexibility: Threat or opportunity? Socialist Review, 21(1), 65-77.

Human Resources Development Council (HRDC). (1992). Telework pilot program in the public service. Ottawa: Supply and Services Canada.

Illingworth, M. M. (1994, August 22). Workers on the net, unite! Informationweek, pp. 27-36.

Industry Canada. (1994a, April). The Canadian information highway: Building Canada's information and communications infrastructure. Ottawa: Supply and Services Canada.

Industry Canada. (1994b, May). Canada's information highway: Services, access and affordability. Ottawa: Supply and Services Canada.

Industry Canada. (1994c, October). Privacy and the Canadian information highway: Building Canada's information and communications infrastructure. Ottawa: Supply and Services Canada.

International Labour Organization (ILO). (1993). Conditions of work digest: Monitoring and surveillance in the workplace, 12(1). Geneva: International Labour Office.

Laabs, J. J. (1992, June). Surveillance: Tool or trap? Personnel Journal, 72, 96-104.

Lyon, D. (1988). The information society: Issues and illusions. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Lyon, D. (1993). An electronic panopticon? A sociological critique of surveillance theory. Sociological Review, 41(4), 653-678.

Lyon, D. (1994). The electronic eye: The rise of the surveillance society. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Marx, G. T. (1990, March-April). The case of the omniscient organization. Harvard Business Review, 68(2), 10-26.

Office of Technology Assessment (OTA), United States Congress. (1987). The electronic supervisor: New technology, new tensions (CIT-333). Washington: Government Printing Office.

Piller, C. (1993, July). Bosses with x-ray eyes. MacWorld, pp. 118-123.

Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC). (1994). Go home and stay there? A PSAC response to telework in the federal public service. Ottawa: PSAC.

Regan, P. M. (1993). Surveillance and new technologies: Changing nature of workplace surveillance. Paper presented at the Strategic Research Workshop on New Technology, Surveillance and Social Control, Queen's University, Kingston, ON.

Robertson, K., & Muir, W. (1993, November 30). B.C. Systems telecommuting pilot: Final evaluation. Victoria: B.C. Systems.

Robins, K., & Webster, F. (1988). Cybernetic capitalism: Information, technology, everyday life. In V. Mosco & J. Wasko (Eds.), The political economy of information (pp. 44-75). Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.

Samarajiva, R. (1994). Privacy in electronic public space: Emerging issues. Canadian Journal of Communication, 19(1), 87-100.

Zuboff, S. (1988). In the age of the smart machine: The future of work and power. New York: Basic.

  •  Announcements
    Atom logo
    RSS2 logo
    RSS1 logo
  •  Current Issue
    Atom logo
    RSS2 logo
    RSS1 logo
  •  Thesis Abstracts
    Atom logo
    RSS2 logo
    RSS1 logo

We wish to acknowledge the financial support of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council for their financial support through theAid to Scholarly Journals Program.