An Ethical Questioning of Work Place Surveillance

Elin Palm


Due to the rapid developments within surveillance technology, many employees have experienced radical changes in work climate and work conditions, often to the detriment of privacy. Today, almost all aspects of work can be monitored and the individual employees work performance and forehavings can be meticulously displayed and analyzed. Since the technology has become both easy to handle and relatively inexpensive, surveillance may be implemented without well-considered reasons. Sophisticated surveillance technology may be used where old fashioned out-put evaluation would have served sufficiently well and more data than necessary may be collected. This implies a risk for undue privacy intrusions. Especially since adequate legislation often stays one step behind the technological development

This paper will be an attempt to strengthen employees and prospective employees negotiating powers concerning work place surveillance by articulating what expectations on privacy employees reasonably may have and what claims they should be justified in raising.

In order to identify what privacy expectations employees rightfully may have at work, Helen Nissenbaums’ discussion on reasonable expectations on privacy in public will be used as a basis. Her discussion is a reaction to a tendency to discuss privacy as confined to the private sphere, drawing on a too sharp dichotomy between the private and the public. Applied on the semi-public work place, it will be argued that it is unreasonable for employees to give up all claims on privacy at work and that there are certain limits as to how much privacy the employee shall be expected to give up.

Normally when talking about privacy, the importance of informed consent is emphasized but in connection with employment the concept becomes nebulous. It will be argued that an individuals’ consent does not automatically legitimate work place surveillance. Certain personal information should not be requested or obtained irrespective of an employees or prospective employees consent.

In order for a persons’ consent to have any force, it should be the result of an informed deliberative process. Employees shall be able to overview the monitoring process in the sense that they fully accept the reasons for monitoring as well as the means and ends thereof. In addition, the situation in which consent is given should be fair if the person shall be considered morally bound by the outcome. Apart from the need of transparency, there are other factors decisive for whether we really can talk about accepting surveillance such as structural or economic coercion. When it comes to work related surveillance, people are not always free to pick and chose a workplace where surveillance is not practiced. Furthermore, in the US, so called “morality tests” e.g., drug tests and pregnancy tests, are frequently required from job applicants. Sometimes even AIDS tests. In such a case, it would be bold to claim that the individual has a free choice to accept the required tests. Applicants who refuse to undertake such a test may be looked upon with skepticism and risk to loose in competitive force.

Many people accept certain disadvantages with a prospective job and prefer to work under conditions they do not fully approve of than to not work at all – this is especially true for work that requires a low level of skill and education and especially at times when unemployment rates are high and workers easily replaceable. Certain groups may be extra sensitive to become subject to surveillance at work such as low skilled work force, young people with little or no work experience and service workers, i.e. often women.

Even if people consent to a certain practice it does not follow that it is moral to treat them in that manner, eg. pre-employment drug or pregnancy testing. Likewise, privacy cannot be condoned simply because some employees are willing to accept it. The negotiating powers of the employee need to be strengthened so that he or she individually can raise claims and initiate discussion concerning reasonable surveillance methods and aims. A sound balance must be reached between, on the one hand, employers’ need for a certain degree of insight in and evaluation of employees’ work necessary in order to run their business efficiently, and on the other hand, the amount of individual control necessary for the employee to perform as a whole person, i.e. with integrity, at work.


Nissenbaum, H. “Protecting Privacy in an Information Age: The Problem of Privacy in Public” in Law and Philosophy 17: 559-596, 1998.

Nissenbaum, H. “Toward an Approach to Privacy in Public: Challenges of Information Technology” in Ethics and Behavior 7 (3): 207-219, 1997.