It was late 2004 when Les Lilley, then a 34-year employee of Canadian National Railway Co., received some troubling information from a co-worker. The man, a maintenance worker, said he had discovered a hidden camera inside a vent at a CN facility in Winnipeg.
"It was a big shock," says Mr. Lilley, who at the time was chairman of the union local. He catalogued other hidden cameras and soon the union filed a grievance. At the time, a CN spokesman said the cameras were installed to track the origin of unexplained equipment breakdowns.
Mr. Lilley and the union saw it differently: "It was about productivity."
In the end, after firing and then reinstating Mr. Lilley, CN agreed to turf the cameras. Yet Mr. Lilley, now a regional vice-president of Canadian Auto Workers Local 100, says distrust remains.
"What's the mood?" he asks. "It's terrible, like Big Brother watching over your shoulder all the time."
Combine the availability of inexpensive monitoring technology with the desire by some employers to know what workers are up to at all times, and the era of the Orwellian office is upon us. Cameras in the hallway, snoopware on the office computer, worker drug testing, GPS in the company car ... the East German Stasi never had it so good.
Employees are increasingly under watch, sometimes without their knowledge, and recent months have delivered troubling examples of new ways companies are seeking to gain insight into workers' lives.
Loblaw Cos. Ltd. announced last month that it has started using criminal-record checks to evaluate job candidates in an effort to reduce employee theft.
In January, the Alberta Court of Appeals ruled that Kellogg Brown & Root had been within its rights to administer a drug test and then fire an oil-patch employee after he tested positive for marijuana. This could open the door to increased workplace drug testing in some industries.
Last year, a government office in Malaysia announced its intention to use security cameras to bust slackers. "We would know if they are adhering to office etiquette or playing truant, and we can also gauge if they are disciplined at work," a government official told a local newspaper.
In Britain, a January survey by the Policy Studies Institute revealed that 50 per cent of the country's workers face some form of monitoring, be it by camera or work computer.
Also in January, the British press reported that Microsoft had filed for a patent on a "unique monitoring system" that would use a computer to capture the blood pressure, heart rate, facial expressions, body temperature and respiration rate of a worker. Microsoft wrote that the system could "automatically detect frustration or stress in the user" and then "offer and provide assistance."
Aside from raising the spectre of a more alarming form of the "blue screen of death," a term used to describe an error that causes a Windows computer to shut down, the filing hints at the next generation of office intrusion: biometrics.
"The next thing will probably be a fingerprint reader to log into computer systems [instead of using a password]" says David Fraser, a privacy lawyer with McInnes Cooper in Halifax. "You can see how a lot of these technologies are really convenient. But a lot of people would say, 'I don't want anybody to have my thumbprint.' "
Elia Zureik, professor emeritus of sociology at Queen's University in Kingston and a researcher with the school's Surveillance Project, says workplace surveillance creates "tension between property rights and human rights and dignity. ...
"Various studies show that employees don't seem to mind [being monitored]as long as they are consulted," he says. "What they really reject is being snooped upon or violated if the employer is surreptitiously collecting data about them."
Prof. Zureik points to data from a 2005 international survey that found 16 per cent of Canadians felt an employer had a right to use surveillance cameras in the workplace. The same percentage also felt it was okay to use cameras for evaluating job performance. That number rose to 37 per cent when employee consent was involved.
Employers often use workplace monitoring as a means to boost productivity by verifying that workers are being responsible with company time and equipment. But research from the British survey about workplace surveillance suggests that a watched worker is also an unproductive one.
Researchers found that those whose e-mails, keyboard strokes and other activities were monitored experienced a 7.5-per-cent increase in "feelings of exhaustion and anxiety related to work" compared with unmonitored workers.
When an employer suspects a specific employee of malfeasance, surveillance can also extend beyond office walls. Remi Kalacyan, president of V.I.P. Investigations Inc. in Montreal, often finds himself driving two car-lengths behind a worker. A private investigator with 14 years' experience, he's hired to tail employees suspected of theft or faking a work-related injury.
"It's a common thing for sure," he says of worker surveillance. "It ranges from a guy claiming to be injured who is going and working somewhere else, to workers passing fraudulent cheques or stealing from the company."
Prof. Zureik says there will always be extreme examples of workplace surveillance, but that many companies recognize how a culture of monitoring can have a negative effect in the office.
"It's not in their interest to be at loggerheads with employees, and the smart companies consult employees or at least tell them what information they are collecting," he says. "But the technology is definitely there for wicked employers."
The walls have eyes
When asked whether employees should assume everything they do inside the office is being monitored, privacy lawyer David Fraser says: "It's not bad advice, even though it may sound a bit paranoid." Workers should be aware that some of the office technologies they use and even carry on their person could easily become tools of Big Brother. So let's get paranoid.
Access key card
Ah, so small and convenient. Your key card opens doors and elevators and can fit in a wallet or easily hang from your belt or a lanyard. But it can also be used to produce a record of your travels within the office by logging which doors you unlock at which times. Coming in late every day? The key card knoweth.
That handy GPS unit on the dash is also an effective tracking device. If it's 3 p.m. and you're already parked at Billy's Bar, well, that's a firin'.
The new surveillance control centre. Keylogger software can record everything you type. Company e-mails are archived, and your browsing history is also easily put on file. Technology is awesome.
You know how it's like a little laptop? See above. Plus, the company gets the bill, which means your calls are listed. So refrain from calling that old university friend in Singapore.