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Who's watching you work? Surveillance in business

Updated Monday, 1st May 2006

Businesses are increasingly using surveillance techniques and technologies to keep an eye on customers and employees.

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Great Britain is acknowledged to be the most watched nation in the world. It has been estimated that there is one CCTV camera for every fourteen citizens of this country, and you can be caught on camera up to 300 times merely by walking around the streets of your nearest city.

Surveillance is the collection of data (be this visual, biometric, location or personal data) on a person, object or ‘target’, with the explicit intention of influencing or managing what that ‘target’ does or where it goes.

Following the 9/11 attacks on New York, and more recently, the 7/7 attacks on London, a significant part of the UK government's response has been to invest more in surveillance infrastructure and systems.

"Businesses have always watched over their employees"

But this isn’t just something that governments employ: businesses are increasingly using surveillance techniques and technologies to keep an eye on customers and employees. To be fair, businesses have always watched over their employees. Indeed, the word ‘supervisor’ literally means ‘overseer’, and monitoring performance is a core management task. However, what and whom businesses monitor, and how they do so is a central question. Current examples include:

  • Call centre employees are constantly listened to, and their keystrokes are monitored.
  • Retail and factory employees are subject to CCTV monitoring.
  • Employees in the logistics industry are RFID tagged, and delivery drivers’ lorries are monitored by GPS and RFID.
  • Many North American organizations routinely drug test their employees.

One company in Cincinnati has even begun to implant RFID chips in its employees’ skin for access control purposes. The website describes a RFID chip as a:

"tiny embedded microchip that can carry around its own information. This chip or tag is triggered by a radio signal set on a specific frequency."

RFID chips do not have their own power supply. They are stimulated to transmit information by a reader which can be held near to the chip, but does not actually touch it. Whoever is holding the reader can then read the information contained on the chip, which normally concerns the thing to which it is attached.

Tiny RFID chips can be implanted in people by means of an injection. The chip is contained in a sterile glass capsule which, once implanted, is not felt by the wearer. The chip is read by a scanner, which then confirms the identity and presence of the wearer at its location.

Customers’ buying habits and personal credentials are profiled and checked to determine their creditworthiness, and eligibility for discounts, offers, and products. There is a price for preference: banks and other money lenders now ‘cherry pick’ the most valuable customers for premium products and restrict opportunities for those who are deemed less valuable.

Surveillance practices are slowly creeping into our personal lives. What we buy, where we live, where we go and literally the characteristics of our bodies determine our access to goods, services and work opportunities. Has surveillance gone too far, and is it is fair?

Why monitor?

Why would a business want to employ monitoring and surveillance techniques?

  • To ensure that productivity and performance are maintained, and sales levels are at their optimum.
  • To protect corporate interests and trade secrets.
  • To limit legal liabilities, as surveillance data contains evidence which can be used in an employment tribunals or other lawsuits.

"It places the interests of consumers and employees firmly in second place"

Hence businesses use surveillance to control risks, profits, quality, liability; to protect their financial interests, and to ensure flows of value. This may be understandable, but it places the interests of consumers and employees firmly in second place.

Costs of surveillance

As research has shown, intensive employee surveillance systems can increase stress and health problems. They can also result in more sabotage and resistance, as employees try to find ways in which they can live and work with an exacting system. Monitoring invades employee and consumer privacy if data is used in a way for which they didn’t expect or give their permission.


Privacy has two basic elements:

  1. Authority to disclose
  2. Target of disclosure

Privacy is protected if an individual gives authority for their information to be disclosed, and is invaded if information about them is gathered without their permission. A common example is where CCTV is installed to monitor employee theft and then management realise they can also use it to monitor the performance and whereabouts of their staff.

Similarly, privacy is protected if that information is only disclosed to a target with the individuals’ consent, and is invaded if that information is disclosed to a third party without that consent. A recently observed example is where employers combine access data with other employee data concerning sickness, absence and medical conditions to make judgements about the suitability of employees for particular posts.

Whether this is good management practice is another question. Judging employees with surveillance data alone has the danger of misrepresenting employee efforts. Surveillance data doesn’t reveal how an employee’s thoughts and feelings might have affected their performance.

On a more general level, exacting surveillance has the effect of suppressing innovation and creativity, as employees are worried about being monitored. Monitoring encourages ‘anticipatory conformity’, which threatens to stifle innovation, motivation and commitment. Exacting surveillance is also disempowering for employees as it constrains the range of behaviour that bosses deem acceptable and gives a message of distrust from management.

Good practice

So, is surveillance in business all doom and gloom? It doesn’t have to be. Clearly the manner in which surveillance is undertaken gives a message to employees and consumers about how the company views them. Nevertheless, of equal importance, particularly in the case of employees, is the contribution made by surveillance to judgements about performance, remuneration and reward.

Employee surveillance has the potential to affect how employee effort is represented to management, and, hence, how rewards are allocated. However, complete reliance on surveillance techniques to determine reward, rather than methods such as coaching or appraisal is likely to be considered unfair.

Whether employees have a voice in the monitoring process and, in particular, whether employees can challenge or question it is also important. For example, if an employer, without consultation, changes its access systems from magnetic swipe cards exclusively to biometrics such as electronic finger-printing or iris scanning, this is likely to be perceived as unfair.

Ultimately, businesses have a choice as to how they use surveillance techniques on their customers and employees. Whilst surveillance systems will always meet the interests of business, businesses can take responsible decisions about using surveillance which incorporate the interests of their workers and customers.

As well as acting within existing legislation about data protection, it is vital to consider the ethical and privacy related issues surrounding the use of surveillance. Benefits in terms of reputation, brand, employment relations, customer loyalty, and employee turnover are just a few of the reasons why.

Further reading

  • The Maximum Surveillance Society: The Rise of CCTV by G Armstrong and C Norris, published by Berg Publishers
  • The Intensification of Surveillance: Crime, Terrorism and Warfare in the Information Age by K S Ball and F Webster, published by Pluto Press
  • Reclaiming the Streets: Surveillance, Social Control and the City by R Coleman, published by Willan Publishing
  • The New Politics of Surveillance and Visibility by K D Haggerty and R V Ericson, published by University of Toronto Press Inc
  • The Glass Consumer: Life in a Surveillance Society by S Lace, published by Polity Press
  • The Electronic Eye: The Rise of Surveillance Society by D Lyon, published by Polity Press
  • Surveillance & Society
  • Roger Clarke’s Dataveillance and Information Privacy Home-Page
  • Surveillance mailing list
  • How private is private? discover the ideas behind CCTV and data collection

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