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Surveillance at Work

This page provides answers to the following questions:

1. Can my employer videotape me?

2. Can my employer videotape me changing in the locker room or other private area with a hidden camera?

3. Can my employer audiotape me?

4. Can my employer monitor my telephone calls?

5. Can my employer listen to messages on my voice mail?

6. Can my employer monitor my voice messages if I have deleted them?

7. Can my employer read my postal mail?

8. Can my employer monitor my computer and e-mail activities?

9. Can an employer track my movements, speed, and/or break-time using GPS devices?

10. What other types of mechanisms are employers using to monitor employees, and is my employer allowed to use them?

11. I feel that my employer has violated my privacy rights. What can I do?

1. Can my employer videotape me?

In order for an employer to legally videotape you it must have some legitimate business purpose - but this is not hard to fulfill. In 2001, more than 15% of midsize and large companies videotaped employees to evaluate their job performance, and almost 38% filmed employees for security purposes.

Federal law seems to allow for the videotaping of any individual, even without his or her knowledge or consent, as long as it is not done to commit a crime. Some states, however, have placed further restrictions on videotaping, and may require that everyone involved in the conversation be aware of, and consent to, the taping. Further, some states, like Connecticut, have implemented stricter laws for employers, fining them for overuse of video cameras Conn. Gen. Stat. § 31-48b 1987.

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2. Can my employer videotape me changing in the locker room or other private area with a hidden camera?

Videotaping employees in an area that they expect to be private, and where it is typical to be undressing, such as a locker room, may violate the law. Courts have recently held that it is an unreasonable invasion of privacy to monitor employees undressing, and such monitoring violates state and federal law.

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3. Can my employer audiotape me?

In order for an employer to legally audiotape you, it must have some legitimate business purpose - but this is not hard to fulfill.

Federal law seems to allow for the audiotaping of any individual, even without his or her knowledge or consent, as long as it is not done to commit a crime. Some states, however, have placed further restrictions on audiotaping, and may require that everyone involved in the conversation be aware of, and consent to, the taping. Further, some states, like Connecticut, have implemented stricter laws for employers, fining them for overuse of audiotape recorders Conn. Gen. Stat. § 31-48b 1987.

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4. Can my employer monitor my telephone calls?

Under federal law The Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA), 18. U.S.C. § 2510 to 2720, employers are only allowed to monitor business telephone conversations; if they realize that the call is personal, they must hang up. However, employers can monitor your personal phone conversations if you have given them your consent. Some state laws provide further safeguards on telephone conversations by requiring that not only the employee, but the person on the other end of the phone line know about and/or consent to the call being monitored.

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5. Can my employer listen to messages on my voice mail?

While it appears that federal law prohibits employers from listening to voice messages The Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA), 18. U.S.C. § 2510 to 2720, it is unclear if it really does, especially for messages that an employee has listened to, but not yet deleted. Recent court cases have held that the employer may monitor voice messages.

The best thing to do is to discourage anyone you know from leaving inappropriate messages on your employer's voicemail system, to avoid embarrassment or possible discipline.

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6. Can my employer monitor my voice messages if I have deleted them?

Yes. Voice mail systems often retain deleted messages by permanently "backing them up" in your employer's computer system.

Again, the best thing to do is to discourage anyone you know from leaving inappropriate messages on your employer's voicemail system, to avoid embarrassment or possible discipline.

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7. Can my employer read my postal mail?

For the most part, this depends on your employer's policy. At most workplaces there is a designated person who opens and sorts the postal mail; and in most cases such a person may accidentally, or even purposely, read any of your mail without any legal consequences.

Mail that is marked "Personal" or "Confidential," however, may not be opened by other people besides yourself, unless there is a compelling (very important) business reason to open it.

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8. Can my employer monitor my computer and e-mail activities?

Yes. Your employer can monitor what is on your computer screen, your Internet activity, how long your computer has been idle, what you write in e-mails and even your online chat conversations. See our site's page on Computer Privacy for more information.

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9. Can an employer track my movements, speed, and/or break-time using GPS devices?

Yes. Many employers have been using devices such as GPS in company cars in order to track how fast employees are driving, how long a break they are taking (monitoring how long the vehicle has not moved), and where employees are located. GPS has also been used to track the movements and whereabouts of employees on or off the job, by placing tracking chips in cell phones.

While some unions have fought to protect workers against this type of monitoring, at this time, little law exists to protect workers against it.

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10. What other types of mechanisms are employers using to monitor employees, and is my employer allowed to use them?

Employers have been known to use other such security monitoring devices as finger prints, retinal scans, and even most recently (in February 2006) implanting computer chips in employees' arms. In most cases, employers are allowed to monitor you however they wish, especially if you choose to work in a high-security occupation where high-tech security measures are necessary. Requiring an employee to place a computer chip in his/her arm, however, may be going too far; but such a technique is a recent development, and the courts have not ruled on the matter one way or the other.

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11. I feel that my employer has violated my privacy rights. What can I do?

After reading the above information, you might conclude that employees have limited privacy rights in the workplace. However, if you still feel that your privacy rights have been violated by your employer, contact your state department of labor, or an employment attorney licensed in your state.

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