Surveillance-capable technologies in the workplace

Mary Prior



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

The use of ICT to monitor employees’ activities has attracted an increasing amount of attention from researchers over the past decade. New technologies have made it possible to continuously monitor activities in ways more intrusive than was ever possible using more traditional means. All too easily, ‘monitoring’ work can become ‘surveillance’ of workers.

In the industrial sociology literature, Sewell and Wilkinson (1992) present a view of workers being disempowered by being increasingly subjected to electronic surveillance; while Thompson and Ackroyd (1995) suggest that this view underestimates workers’ powers of resistance. From an ethical standpoint researchers are concerned with the attack on employees’ privacy and autonomy that electronic monitoring systems appear to represent (Brey 1999, Moore 2000, Hartman 2001). Others have investigated possible effects on the workforce such as stress (Smith et al. 1992, Aiello, 1993, Aiello and Kolb, 1995).

More recently, there have been some findings which challenge previous work in this area. One of the more surprising findings of the work undertaken by Mason et al. (2002) was that employees in their case studies appeared relatively unconcerned about privacy aspects of ‘surveillance-capable technologies’ in the workplace. They also challenge the ‘worker disempowerment’ vs ‘worker resistance’ debate; their case studies suggest that a more complex reality exists in the workplace than a confrontational ’employer vs employee’ relationship. Employees and their supervisors can collaborate to meet the organisation’s goals, whether this means using the monitoring/surveillance systems or finding ways to apparently ‘subvert’ them.

Thus, the privacy and other concerns reported by some authors appear to be contradicted by evidence derived from case studies by other researchers. Earlier work by the present author found an apparently high level of complacency about workplace surveillance among young people (Prior 2002). There is a need for further studies to be undertaken in a variety of workplace settings to determine what are the factors affecting the ways in which surveillance-capable technologies are deployed, the purposes for which they are used and the views of those affected by them.

It is against this background that the work that will be presented in this paper is being carried out. It is well-aligned with the overall theme of the conference, ‘Challenges for the Citizen of the Information Society’.


The paper will present a rationale for the methodology used to undertake the research, which includes a literature review of secondary sources and primary research using structured interviewing, and the procedures involved to ensure that the ethical issues raised by the use of human subjects have been addressed.

The Study

In two consecutive years a questionnaire was administered to undergraduate students in the School of Computing at De Montfort University, Leicester, U.K. A total of 616 students have taken part in survey, the results of which were reported in Prior (2002). The findings, as indicated above, included an apparently high level of complacency about CCTV surveillance in particular in both University and other workplace settings, and workplace surveillance systems in general. The work also indicated, however, that respondents’ attitudes may be moderated by experience in the workplace.

This work is being followed up, firstly, by a more detailed questionnaire targeted specifically at students returning from a year’s industrial placement experience. The organisations in which they have been working represent a wide cross-section of the U.K. economy, from multinational corporations to small and medium-sized enterprises, from the public sector and health service to manufacturing and service industries. Secondly, the main part of the study comprises structured interviews with a selection of these students. The selection aims to cover a variety of both workplaces and of students (in terms of gender, ethnic background and age – although a majority are around 21 years old, there are a few in older age groups). The work provides further evidence concerning:

  • the forms of workplace monitoring and surveillance systems in use by a variety of size and types of organisations, mainly in the U.K., during the period 2002-2003;
  • the experience that students have had of each form of monitoring/surveillance and their attitude(s) towards them;
  • the views of the students towards the issue of privacy in the workplace;
  • the factors influencing the deployment of monitoring/surveillance systems and the attitudes of those who work with them.

The findings will be compared to those of other recent pieces of research. Areas for further investigation will be highlighted; in particular, it is hoped that particular (types of) organisation(s) may be identified where more detailed case studies could be undertaken.


Aiello, John R. (1993) Computer-based work monitoring: electronic surveillance and its effects. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, vol. 23 (no. 7), 499-507.

Aiello, John R. & Kolb, Kathryn J. (1995) Electronic performance monitoring and social context: impact on productivity and stress. Journal or Applied Psychology, vol. 80 (no. 3), 339-353.

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

Hartman, Laura P. (2001) Technology and ethics: privacy in the workplace. Business and Society Review, vol. 106 (no. 1), 1-27.

Mason, David, Button, Graham, Lankshear, Gloria and Coates, Sally. (2002) Getting real about surveillance and privacy at work. In Woolgar, Steve (ed.) Virtual Society? Technology, Cyberbole, Reality. Oxford.

Moore, Adam D. (2000) Employee monitoring and computer technology: evaluative surveillance v. privacy. Business Ethics Quarterly, vol. 10 (no. 3), 697-709.

Prior, Mary (2002) Big brother at work: so what? A study of the attitudes of young people to workplace surveillance. ETHICOMP 2002, Lisbon, Portugal, 13-15 November 2002.

Sewell, G. & Wilkinson, B. (1992) ‘Someone to watch over me’: surveillance, discipline and the just-in-time labour process. Sociology, vol. 26 (no. 2), 271-289.

Smith, M.J., Carayon, P., Sanders, K.J., Lim, S-Y. & LeGrande, D. (1992) Applied Ergonomics, vol. 23 (no. 1), 17-27.

Thompson, P. and Ackroyd, S. (1995) All quiet on the workplace front? A critique of recent trends in British industrial sociology. Sociology, vol. 29 (no. 4), 615-633.