E-mail’s Watchful Eye

Rafael Martín
23 January, 2018
Editorial: 170
Fecha de publicación original: 1 junio, 1999

Likely lies in the mire , and unlikely gets over it

In 1991, 8 million Americans had access to e-mail. In 1997, there were already 67 million. Last year, there were 96 million. This figure could rise to as much as 120 million this year. The vast majority of these connected people get their bit “fixes” in the work place, where corporative e-mails are linked to the Internet. According to some conservative estimates, workers in the US exchange about 20 billion e-mails a day, which is a figure not to be sniffed at. And as far as the companies they work for are concerned, these messages are like open postcards: anyone is allowed to open them up, especially management and above all when they have a particular interest in what certain employees might be saying and to whom. This electronic surveillance –cheap, simple and instantaneous– is not confined to the US alone, despite the fact that there it is reaching the paranoid proportions of a society that feels constantly under threat from a sawn-off shotgun. In fact, there is no legislation in the US or Europe which outlines a specific framework for the privacy that worker’s e-mail are entitled to beyond a certain general recognition of a right to privacy which has far too many loopholes. And, as time goes by, the pupil of this (ever vigilant) electronic eye is expanding.

A recent survey conducted by the American Management Association (AMA) revealed that in 45% of the companies consulted surveillance of employees is a regular practice and the rest admitted that it was sporadic or used just when they were keeping a particular eye on someone. This surveillance included phone tapping, hidden video cameras and, of course, opening other people’s e-mails. The Society for the Management of Human Resources, also in the US, conducted a similar survey in which 20% of the companies consulted admitted doing random routine checks on employees’ e-mails. Many economics analysts consider this surveillance — as one of the manifestations of the spread of information technology — to be one of the most important factors contributing to increased productivity over the last few years, since it allows for better quality control and the reduction of work-related crimes. Nevertheless, we also know that it is a source of stress at work, although its true effect on worker’s performance is something which still has to be investigated.

Depending on how one looks at it, the situation is improving (for companies) or deteriorating noticeably (for employees). Everything conspires to give workers the impression that their e-mail at work is private particularly since they have the passwords to their computers and e-mail boxes. But, in fact, Spanish law, for example, only recognises the right to privacy that they have negotiated with the company concerned. Even the judicial system is unclear on this point. There are no explicit labour agreements which outline a framework within which both sides can operate, and, more importantly, there is no clear perception as to how far information technology has penetrated the terrain of interpersonal relationships.

In fact, an ambivalent –and contradictory– relationship is emerging which, on the one hand, potentiates “personalised” relationships among companies and their clients but, on the other, “depersonalises” the relationship of the workers with the companies by turning them into interchangeable cogs via codes/passwords. This is what happens with “call centers” based on web technology. All telephone calls received by a company are registered and redirected to the appropriate department where workers are put into direct contact with clients, either via voice (e-voice boxes) or e-mail. From this point on, all the company’s electronic messages form part of their recorded files and data bases accessible via the Intranet. In this way, all electronic correspondence is of value to the company and so there is a kind of tacit agreement on the company’s part that surveillance forms part of normal procedure.

Another element in this complex privacy question is the indestructible “nature” of electronic correspondence. In May, Wired magazine ran the story of John Jessen, an e-mail forensic surgeon capable of recovering electronic messages which had been erased or buried deep in the folds of obsolete digital memory. There isn’t a computer capable of withstanding Jessen’s autopsies. Armed with a series of computer technology tools which he developed himself, he is able to open up old word processors, out of date spreadsheets, deleted e-mail messages and rescue all the information that the owner thought had been chucked into the magnetic trash can. One of the victims of this new profession was Bill Gates, who was forced by a judge to present to the court some of the e-messages in which he tried to crush Apple and America Online which had, supposedly, disappeared from his files. Jessen, it goes without saying, is earning a fortune in the law courts of the US. Corporate lawsuits, blackmail, corruption, prevarication, industrial espionage and divorces are his specialities. Jessen is a symptom of our increasing dependence on e-mail.

One last thing worth pointing out is that we are on the threshold of a huge explosion. Just as nearly half of all Americans have already incorporated e-mail into their daily routines, so might we in the next two or three years. Thousands of companies, organisations and administrations are distributing e-mail to their employees. This expansion of the networks is not going hand in hand with explicit agreements which clearly define the frontier between workers’ rights to privacy and the company’s right to manage and supervise electronic mail. The mere fact that these messages can be viewed like open postcards in the workplace, like a fax is, which is what some legal experts are proposing, does not take into account the need for intimacy and privacy related to this technology that should be negotiated by the parties concerned so that rights and obligations are recognised on both sides.

Translation: Bridget King.