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The Creepy, Intrusive Ways You're Being Spied on at Work

How employers invade workers' privacy.

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Because corporate espionage is commonplace, private investigators are busier than ever. Close to sixty thousand PIs are licensed in the United States, and who knows how many more are unlicensed. Some of the corporate spies are even current, active-duty CIA agents who are granted permission by the agency to “moonlight” at private companies. And the spying isn’t just on behalf of high-powered technology and pharmaceutical companies. The entertainment industry, the insurance industry, the chemical industry—they all do it. Even the circus industry has been involved with hiring PIs to infiltrate People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and other animal rights groups. Espionage is now a key risk management technique used by many companies.

For most employees, this just adds one more layer of (potential) surveillance to their lives. In addition to companies’ running background checks before hiring people, monitoring their electronic communications, and subjecting them to performance monitoring, employers and their competitors may be digging through workers’ trash or accessing their phone records. It may be next to impossible for individuals to protect themselves. According to one private investigator, “If someone is willing to break the law to get your personal info, there’s almost nothing you can do to prevent them.” In the summer of 2011, the world discovered just how true this was when we learned that major newspapers were hiring private investigators to tap into the voice-mail systems of celebrities, killed British soldiers, high-profile crime victims,
and members of the royal family.

The New Ford: Drug Testing and Moral Management

Early in this chapter, we saw that Henry Ford had a special department monitoring the home lives of his employees to ensure that they were living up to his moral standards. He believed that the ideal workers didn’t just get the job done; they lived their personal lives as the Ford Motor Company preferred. These days this sort of corporate paternalism is frowned on as overreaching—most of us expect that if we do a good job while we’re on the clock, the rest of our lives belong to us.

But do they? We’ve given several examples of the ways contemporary surveillance is used by businesses in their attempt to reduce risk and successfully manage their workforce. Credit checks see if potential employees are good with their money. Background checks search not only for arrests or convictions, but also for past use of workers’ compensation or lawsuits. In many workplaces, regulations prohibit hiring smokers, while “wellness programs” give special encouragements to those who work out in the company gym or pursue other healthful lifestyle choices. It may not be enough that you’re a whiz at programming—you may need to be a healthy, nonsmoking, exercising, debt-free programmer with a clean legal history and no record of using workers’ compensation.

One now commonplace example of this invasive management is the drug-testing frenzy that emerged back in the 1980s. Testing job applicants, employees, welfare clients, and even students typically can be done with relatively low-cost kits that analyze a urine sample to detect evidence of drug use. These tests measure certain residues let in the body long after drug use. Because of this quirk in the technology, drug-testing programs provide no evidence regarding current intoxication or impairment. Instead, they implement a 24/7/365 monitoring program on what employees take into their bodies—a far more encompassing
version of Henry Ford’s inspections of his employees’ homes.

If it weren’t for all the human pain, wasted money, and nasty politics, the saga of workplace drug testing might be a comedy rather than the tragedy it is. The movement began with a passion during the Reagan administration’s War on Drugs of the 1980s. The push to test the urine of America’s blue-collar workers was ready-made for the politics of the era. As part of the War on Drugs, workplace drug testing deputized America’s employers as quasi-government enforcers of drug control laws. It included overblown claims that America’s workers were stoned; it put labor unions in the position of seeming to defend workers’ right to be stoned; and it of offered a dramatic expansion of employers’ power over employees as the moralist commands followed workers home for the weekend and on their vacations. Finally, it meant a huge new stream of revenue for America’s pharmaceutical industry, a perennial heavyweight in campaign contributions.

Drug-testing technology was first developed in prisons and the military. The next wave of the rollout was in safety-sensitive positions like pilots, train crews, law enforcement, and power plant personnel. Job applicants were brought into the game when prices dropped on low-quality screening tests, and then in some areas those who applied for public assistance were required to demonstrate their abstinence. Along the way, high school students got in on the fun as some districts began testing athletes and anyone else who participated in school-sponsored activities.

Yet this sort of testing for illegal drug use just doesn’t make a lot of sense. The most damaging drug in the American workforce is alcohol, which is almost never tested for and was never part of the American debate over drugs in the workplace. Another puzzle is that most drug tests are best at detecting signs of marijuana, which can stay in the body for weeks after use, while evidence of more serious drugs disappears more quickly. So employee drug testing basically skipped the serious stuff to give corporations the power to examine the marijuana smoking habits of their of -duty employees. Add in that drug tests don’t even measure current impairment—only past use—and we’ve got some pretty major disconnects in the safety-testing rationale. The almost silly, unnecessary intrusion of these surveillance policies drives home a point we see in several parts of this book: surveillance doesn’t always make sense from a technical, rational, problem-solving perspective. Sometimes it seems to be about power for power’s sake or inspired by other motives that wouldn’t stand the scrutiny of public discussion.

Checking You Out

Chances are good that if you apply for a job, your prospective employers will try to dig up some dirt on you. They may call your references, request credit reports, or—as we’ve mentioned—run criminal background checks. They’ll probably Google you too. Additionally, 75 percent of US companies now conduct formal searches of applicants’ online activity, and 70 percent admit rejecting candidates based on the information they’ve found.

Some entrepreneurial companies have sprung up to help employers run online background checks. Social Intelligence is one of the big ones, and it claims to do “deep” web searches on individuals, tapping into social networking sites, blogs, Tumblr, Craigslist, Yahoo! groups, and many, many more sites. They’ve even received the blessing of the Federal Trade Commission to archive all social networking posts for seven years. So cleaning up your Facebook page a few months before applying for a job won’t help because seven years of posts may already be on file, ready to be mined for any compromising tidbits.