Privacy, Autonomy and Workplace Surveillance

Lucas D. Introna


Modern technologies are providing unprecedented opportunities for surveillance. In its attempts to compete in the global market the modern organisation can and do draw on these technologies to produce comprehensive systems of employee surveillance. This surveillance is often justified by arguments about competitiveness, efficiency, and the right of the employer to ‘get what it pays for’. Defenders of the employees right to privacy counter these claims by calling on moral grounds for their defence, such as privacy as fundamental human right. The debate is often structured in a way that sees the right of the employer to surveil and the right of the employee to privacy as mutually exclusive and as the manifestation of an inherent conflict between employer and employee. In this paper, I want to argue that there is no need to depend solely on moral claims to defend the employees right to privacy. I want to argue that there is an interesting paradox in the emerging economic context that may provide a more pragmatic basis for defending the employees right to privacy. That it may ultimately be in the interest of the employer to protect the privacy of the employee. In other words, that it may be a win-win situation rather that a zero sum game.

I will argue that privacy is central to autonomy. In other words, individuals need privacy in order to develop autonomous behaviour. Autonomous behaviour is widely acknowledged by authors on organisation development as the cornerstone of learning organisations’ the sort of organisational form essential to survive in a dynamic (even chaotic) environment resulting from, amongst others, globalisation processes. Surveillance would tend not to develop the sort of employees demanded in this emerging chaotic environment. Rather, it would tend to locate the locus of control outside the employee, and in so doing keep them in a state of dependence and ‘immaturity’. Simply put: what you gain in control you loose in learning, or, if you want learning, you must pay for it in privacy. Since the emerging economic environment requires learning rather than control, it is in the interest of the employer to develop information systems as systems for learning rather than as systems for surveillance.

If this argument can be sustained then there may in fact be a possibility to see employee privacy as a value that can serve the interest of both stakeholders. Articulated in this manner employee privacy does not merely become an idea we come to ‘at the end’ but becomes and essential element of modern organisation development efforts. This way of conceiving the problem highlights the very subtle, and hereto under-appreciated, link between privacy, autonomy, learning, organisation development, and actual choices in information systems design and implementation. It is to this end that this paper will contribute to the debate.

I will structure the paper as follows: First, I will discuss the rise of workplace surveillance and some of the debates about the conflict that it expresses. Second, I will discuss the relationship between privacy, autonomy and learning. Third, I will discuss organisational learning and its link with privacy. Finally, I will discuss some of the implications of these ideas for organisation and information systems design and implementation.