Securing workplace privacy – why and how?

Elin Palm


ABSTRACT. Monitoring has always been a part of the employment conditions but the escalation of inexpensive and often easy to use devices enables employers to expand the range and scope of monitoring of employees’ activities. The increased sophistication and accessibility of workplace surveillance have given raise to moral as well as legal assessment. A rich plethora of international and national privacy protection codes and laws mirror this development.

Still, there seems to be reason to worry that only limited aspects of privacy are sufficiently well protected by the prevailing legislation and coding. The main thrust of this paper is that, by and large, prevailing privacy protection laws and codes are based on a too narrow view on privacy. In consequence, only a limited part of that which should be considered reasonable privacy claims at work is satisfactorily protected.

The theoretical underpinnings of this claim stem from the analysis of privacy by Beate Roessler in “The Value of Privacy” (2005). In this book, convincing arguments are given to the effect that privacy, in liberal societies, is valued for the sake of individual liberty and autonomy. Unless privacy is secured, individuals will not be able to develop themselves in accordance with their own chosen life-plans towards a life that is personally rewarding (Roessler, 2005:44). A most significant feature of privacy, it is argued, is that of the individual’s chances of controlling certain aspects about herself. The case is made that individuals should be able to control both “direct physical admission to spaces” and “a metaphorical access to their personhood”. Moreover, that which should be protected as private is separated in three different aspects: (1) local privacy, (2) decisional privacy and (3) informational privacy. And more precisely, privacy is the spatial and intellectual sphere that enables individuals to decide over matters that concern them, to control who has access over information about themselves (both direct sensory access and stored data) and to establish and develop different types of relations (Roessler, 2005:44). A central aim of the analysis is that of broadening the scope of the notion of privacy from the dominant and rather narrow focus on informational privacy to include decisional and local privacy as well (Roessler, 2005:7).

Roughly, privacy is either defined in terms of “control” or as “seclusion” (Inness, 1992, Palm, 2005). Roessler however, brings these aspects together and explicates their internal relations, showing how they all are significant parts of a more nuanced privacy concept. The combined grip contributes to amplify the richness of “privacy” and to resolve conflicts in the prevailing privacy debate.

A brief assessment of the prevailing privacy protection indicates that the privacy laws and codes, almost exclusively, are based on one of Roessler’s three aspects of privacy. Traditionally, the main focus of privacy protection has been that of personal data. In countries with strict privacy regulation such as Austria, Germany, Norway and Sweden, legislation primarily regulates the usage of personal data (Bennett in: Hansson and Palm, eds. 2005:76), leaving workers in a weak position to secure privacy interests that exceed certain types of personal information. Although an essential feature, person specific data is only one of the dimensions of privacy that ought to be recognized. Certainly, decisional privacy has been emphasized in some European countries (Bennett in: Hansson and Palm, eds. 2005:76) but then primarily in terms of a right to decide over personal data of the kind secured by data protection laws.

At the end of the day, prevailing workplace privacy coding and legislation seems to secure one single aspect of privacy. While privacy sensitive data has received a lot of attention dimensions such as decisional and local privacy have, unfortunately, been left aside.

In order to improve existing workplace privacy protection, a more adequate conceptual basis is needed. Arguably, a better foundation can be obtained by means of incorporating the three aspects of privacy previously mentioned. The main contribution of this paper will be that of (1) introducing the triptyche model of privacy into the employment context and of (2) explicating the meaning and implications of this model for workplace privacy. In order to exemplify, the employment relation restricts the extent to which employees may act as autonomous individuals. When entering an employment contract the prospective employee typically abstains parts of her discretionary power to the employer. Such and other characteristics of the workplace will be taken into consideration when interpreting the three aspects of privacy in the particular setting of work. In this way, essential characteristics of workplace privacy will be revealed.

The conclusion reached will be that the way in which privacy is understood is crucial for the quality of privacy protection. And, in order to reach a satisfactorily workplace privacy protection the view on privacy must come to include, not only informational privacy, but also decisional and local privacy. A broader privacy concept would expand the coverage of privacy protection and a stronger emphasis on decisional privacy could come to reduce the need for additional principles like the Fair Bargaining codes that serve to secure employees’ interests in employment negotiations.


Inness, J.C “Privacy, Intimacy and Isolation”, Oxford University Press, 1992.

Roessler, B. “The Value of Privacy”, Polity Press, 2005.

Bennett, C. in:. Hansson and Palm (eds) “The Ethics of Workplace Privacy”, P.I.E. Lang, 2005.

Palm, E “Ethical Aspects of Workplace Surveillance”, Licentiate Thesis, Royal Institute of Technology, Stockholm, 2005.