Big Brother at Work – So What?


Mary Prior (UK)



The paper will present the findings of the author’s continuing work in the area of workplace surveillance.

There is nothing new in the concept of surveillance in the workplace as Lyon [1994] points out with a brief historical survey of the topic. However the advent of new technologies in recent decades has offered the possibility of monitoring individual employees in ways previously not possible. These include keystroke monitoring; time, place and duration of login; telephone call monitoring; internet, network and software usage logs; email interception; remote viewing of monitors; active badges that track employee whereabouts and closed circuit television [Mohammed, 1999]. It has been claimed that the surveillance of workers is becoming, ‘more widespread, more continuous, more intense and more secretive’ [Ford, 1999] largely due to the widespread use of digital technology and availability of cheap surveillance systems [MSF, 2000]. Moreover, while much surveillance in the past was of manual workers in industrial environments it now can, and has been, extended to include the more professional and supervisory classes of employees.

It can be argued that an employer has the right within certain limits to monitor the performance of his or her employees; however there is considerable ground for disagreement over the extent of those rights and limits and frequently there is an absence of debate and agreement between employer and employee representatives as to what constitute reasonable limits.

It is against this background that the work to be presented in this paper is taking place; it is perfectly aligned with the overall theme of the conference, ‘The Transformation of Organisations in the Information Age: Social and Ethical Implications.’


The paper will present a rationale for the methodology used to undertake the research and the procedures involved to ensure that the ethical issues raised by the use of human subjects have been addressed.

The Study

In the spring of 2001 a questionnaire was administered to 300 undergraduate students in the Faculty of Computing Sciences and Engineering at De Montfort University, Leicester U.K. concerning (1) use of closed circuit television (CCTV) in the University and (2) the use of CCTV in the workplace. In the Spring of 2002, the questionnaire is to be repeated with a comparable sample of a further 300 undergraduate students. The responses to the questionnaires will be analysed. It is anticipated that this will yield some useful information about the awareness and attitudes of these particular groups of subjects concerning surveillance of their everyday environment in the University and within the workplace.

The results of the 2001 questionnaire suggested that the students surveyed had an easy acceptance of CCTV as a ‘good idea’ but their awareness of the issues raised with respect to its use in the workplace needs to be enhanced. There was a worrying contradiction in an objection to being monitored yet apparent readiness to monitor others. Nevertheless there were interesting differences of attitude between first and second year students on the one hand, and final year students on the other. In addition to being on average two to three years older than the first and second year students the final year group had undertaken a year of industrial placement experience. Both of these factors might be expected to have some influence on their awareness of social and ethical issues in general and of workplace surveillance in particular.

By administering the questionnaire to comparable groups of students in 2002, it will be possible to determine whether or not the same kind of distinctions in response from the different groups of students is present. It is possible that the 2001 results were a reflection of the attitudes of particular cohorts of students. However, if the same perceptible differences of attitude and awareness between the younger (first and second year) and the older (final year) groups of students is also found in comparable groups of students in 2002, this could be indicative of a trend. There may be other interesting findings in the analysis of the views of a total of 600 undergraduate Computing students.

The final year students will be asked about their experience of surveillance during their industrial placement year and whether they would be willing to take part in further studies. This is an extension to the original survey and will help provide a profile of the extent of workplace surveillance among the organisations with whom the students have spent their industrial placement year. These organisations represent a wide cross-section of the U.K. economy, from multinational corporations to small and medium-sized enterprises, from the public sector and the health service to manufacturing and service industries. The extent of students’ experience of surveillance in the workplace may influence their views and this extension to the survey may provide the basis for further work.


The paper will examine the social and ethical implications of workplace surveillance arising from the study described above and from an examination of the relevant literature.

A number of authors have identified loss of trust and a deterioration in working relationships as an outcome of workplace surveillance [Ford, 1999; Oz et al, 1999]. Furthermore, it has been suggested that in the ‘knowledge economy’ employee autonomy is vital to organisational success and that to the extent that it reduces worker autonomy, intrusive employee surveillance may therefore be found to be counter-productive [Brey, 1999; Green, 1999; Introna, 1999].

Evidence in the support, or otherwise, of these and other possible effects (for example on the physical or emotional well-being of staff) of workplace surveillance will be discussed. Avenues for further research will be identified.


Brey, Philip (1999) Worker autonomy and the drama of digital networks in organizations. Journal of Business Ethics, vol. 22 (no. 1), 15-25.

Ford, Michael (1999) Surveillance and Privacy at Work. Institute of Employment Rights.

Green, Stephen (1999) A plague on the Panopticon: surveillance and power in the global information economy. Information, Communication and Society, vol. 2 (no. 1), 26-44.

Introna, Lucas D. (1999) Privacy, Autonomy and Workplace Surveillance. Proceedings of the 4th ETHICOMP International Conference on the Social and Ethical Impacts of Information and Communication Technologies, Rome, 5-8 October 1999.

Lyon, David (1994) The Electronic Eye. Polity Press.

Mohammed, E. (1999). An examination of surveillance technology and their implications for privacy and related issues – the philosophical legal perspective. The Journal of Information, Law and Technology, no. 2. accessed 12.02.2001

MSF (2000) Submission to Data Protection Commissioner in Response to Draft Code of Practice on the Use of Personal Data in Employer/Employee Relationships. Manufacturing, Science and Finance Union, December 2000.

Oz, Effy, Glass, Richard and Behling, Robert. (1999) Electronic workplace monitoring: what employees think. Omega, International Journal of Management Science, vol. 27 (no. 2), 167-177.