By Richard A. Hall
While a number of topics are currently being discussed in the United States, one of the most controversial is that of the right to privacy. This hot button issue is made more complex in a post 9-11 environment. We struggle to find and maintain a balance between personal rights and public safety.
Most people would vigorously defend the right to privacy, feeling that the accessibility of too much personal information is not only an invasion, but morally wrong, and unconstitutional. After all, prior to September 11th, the United States had not been subjected to the overt terrorism that had plagued other countries.
The events of September 11th pervaded our false sense of security and caused us truly question if the enemy was in a far off country or our next door neighbor. In our post 09/11 world, the government’s responsibility to protect Americans has taken on new meaning. In an aggressive effort to protect us from the threat within, the government has adopted a “by any means necessary” approach even if that means listening in to phone calls, reading emails, reviewing library records or scouring through websites. The recent foiled plot of airline bombings in Britain is an example of how invasion of privacy can in fact keep us safe. The individuals stopped for this heinous crime were discovered first by a tip but second from police monitoring private activity which included phone calls.
In the instance where a terrorism plot is averted because of the invasion of privacy there can be no argument to the validity of the practice. Yet, we also know that innocent people have had their privacy invaded when they did not pose a threat to national security.
The national debate over privacy has repercussions on a smaller level as well. Corporations and employees struggle with privacy issues in the workplace. Companies also are seeking to protect themselves from a different kind of terrorism – that of legal and financial exposure caused by the actions of its employees, whether innocent or intentionally malicious.
Privacy is legally protected by the Constitution of the United States, and at the very core of America’s existence. As politicians, voters and special interest groups debate these constitutional issues, employees and employers seek to understand the rules of engagement within business.
Does an employee have privacy rights at work? How far can employers go in monitoring the activities of employees to ensure that they are protected from liability?
Employers not only have a right to monitor the activities of employees but a responsibility. Computer activity, including e-mails and phone calls can be monitored by the employer. In fact, some degree of monitoring is recommended. Emails are discoverable in legal action exposing employers to a great degree of risk. Even if the employer has a policy that expressly states that personal emails are allowable, the company still has a right to monitor individual emails.
Phone calls, except those placed on designated “for personal use” phones, can also be monitored. Call center and customer service employees are routinely monitored for quality assurance and training. There are however, federal and state regulations which must be adhered to which in many locations including notifying parties that the call is being monitored. Most employees will need to place or receive a personal call from work at some point in time. However, as a best practice, employees should use pay phones or cell phones when they must conduct personal business during the work day.
As we seek to balance privacy and protection on a national stage, we will undoubtedly make adjustments on a more personal level. We have already become accustomed to much of our lives being monitored through security cameras, electronic tracking and internet use so it is possible that what is now viewed as invasion will simply become normal. In the interim, it is wise to assume that what happens in Vegas, may not stay in Vegas!
About The Author
Richard A. Hall is founder and President/CEO of LexTech, Inc., a legal information consulting company. Mr. Hall has a unique breadth of experience which has enabled him to meld technology and sophisticated statistical analysis to produce a technology driven analytical model of the practice of law. As a busy civil trial attorney, he was responsible for the design and implementation of a LAN based litigation database and fully automated document production system for a mid-sized civil defence firm. He developed a task based billing model built on extensive statistical analysis of hundreds of litigated civil matters. In 1994, Mr. Hall invented linguistic modeling software which automatically reads, applies budget codes, budget codes and analyzes legal bill content. He also served as California Director and lecturer for a nationwide bar review. Mr. Hall continues to practice law and perform pro bono services for several Northern California judicial districts.