Privacy vs. Information in the Workplace

By Frank Kenna

Col. Jack Jacobs, a retired U.S. Army colonel and military intelligence analyst, appeared Monday morning on CNBC to discuss the possible intelligence failure of identifying the Boston Marathon bombers.  As one of the show’s hosts noted, “If I Google ‘sailing lessons’ in New York City, I’ll start getting ads for sailboat charter operations in Long Island Sound. The terrorists were apparently looking up how to make plans on al Qaeda-linked websites.”  The question to Jacobs was why didn’t the FBI or CIA use this information to track the bombers like Google does?

His answer was yes, the technology is definitely there, but the political will isn’t; that for every politician in favor of doing this, there are 40 who aren’t. He said, “In an age of social networks, when these guys posted their feelings on their sites and on Facebook, nobody picked up on it.”  In other words, we could have but we didn’t.  It’s all about a debate between national security and personal privacy.

As I look to the future of workplace communication, I see the same issues looming.  For example, we have the technology today to read our employees’ email, track their web usage and track many of their physical movements.  But should we?  The answer of course is very debatable.  But I think there is a way forward.

For example, let’s take the email example.  I think most people would agree that having someone read every employee email would cross the privacy line.  But what about an automatic scan of all the emails for certain word and phrase groups, picking up warning signs like “drug sale” or “violence” or “bullying.”  If any of those started to spike, an alert could be sent to HR which could then start asking around to see what’s going on.

Or take GPS tracking.  On the plus side it can be (and is) very useful for companies that have lots of package delivery or long-haul drivers. But tracking those employees outside of their company vehicles might be going too far.

So there are ways to harness technology for tracking employees’ behavior that makes sense and others that cross the privacy line.  For law enforcement, that line is harder to define as the stakes are higher – life and death – but the issues are the same.

Frank Kenna III
April 22, 2013

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