Blog Post

Do we need a line between big data and big brother?

We often laud big data when it’s capturing and storing all sorts of new data types such as social media feeds, genome-sequencing data and server logs, but would the positive tone change if we were talking about monitoring your every digital interaction while at work to discover questionable behavior? I tend to think it would — Americans are particularly skeptical of Big Brother tracking their activity — but Cataphora CEO Elizabeth Charnock doesn’t agree, at least when it comes to the workplace. In fact, she thinks that in a world with increasingly larger corporations and distributed workforces, companies will be doing themselves and their employees big favors by keeping close tabs on what employees are doing.

It’s about more (and less) than wide-scale fraud

To get a full sense for where Charnock sees the value of her company’s software, which tracks and analyzes electronic communications carried out over corporate networks, one really needs to read a Cataphora blog post called “Getting Big Brother Right.” You’ll notice in a hurry that while Cataphora is concerned with uncovering nefarious activity such as fraud and with discovering the truth in the case of any complaints, investigations or lawsuits, it’s also quite adept at proactively tracking and highlighting employees’ personal lives if their bosses are so inclined. It’s the latter type of activity that I think toes some ethical lines, and it’s on this issue that Charnock and I began a recent conversation.

Elizabeth Charnock

To defend the tracking of employees’ personal lives, Charnock points to the scenario of someone “flipping out.” Maybe someone is going through an ugly divorce, she explained, or is otherwise very stressed out and could be a danger to himself, to others or to the bottom line by operating heavy machinery or sensitive equipment. Those issues might not be visible to the naked eye, but they might be clearer in someone’s emails. If a company gets “sued out of existence” or faces a large civil judgment or regulatory fine, everyone loses, especially if the result is a wave of layofffs or bankruptcy.

Or, she said, consider today’s distributed workforces in which employees are spread across multiple offices or even are working from home. In the past, Charnock said, managers could see their employees on a daily basis and might be able to put two and two together if, say, the guy who came in looking hungover every morning was also an unproductive employee. That’s not always possible today, but Cataphora can help replace those in-person interactions if that same guy is emailing co-workers about his wild nights or tweeting about them from his office desktop.

The aforementioned blog, written by Cataphora VP of Marketing Rick Janowski, takes a more positive tack on this type of monitoring:

At least some level of protective monitoring helps to replace the basic kinds of feedback that managers are used to having readily available, whether that is seeing an employee with a runny nose and concluding they have a cold or seeing a normally calm person pacing around their office and inferring that they are having some kind of issue. Such knowledge helps managers make better decisions in the day-to-day management of their employees.

But this is where we get into the proverbial slippery slope. Even if you can buy into what Charnock is proposing as simply being good business and really just serving as an electronic proxy for a floor manager, you have to wonder where it stops. Where is the line at which companies decide particular information isn’t important enough to warrant monitoring and/or acting upon?

What really matters?

Charnock says she doesn’t care about whether someone is looking at Facebook, but rather cares about uncovering broad and worsening problems, or acute but intensifying problems. She also suggested that sometimes it’s in companies’ best interests to know as little as possible about their employees’ personal lives. If personal details about, for example, sexual orientation were included in an employee’s email, evidence that the company knew about them might play an important role in a wrongful termination lawsuit.

The problem, of course, is that while Charnock as a third party selling software can take a seemingly prudent stance toward monitoring, petty or overly draconian employers might not be able to draw those lines. They might equate Facebook usage with being unproductive on the company dime. Maybe they’ll find it acceptable to monitor discussions about employees’ health so they can pressure them to get in shape. Hey, it’ll mean lower insurance premiums for the company and everyone else.

But maybe there’s no problem at all with employers monitoring what their employees are doing. Maybe employees should just stop conducting personal conversations using company email accounts, computers and cell phones. The law is on the employers’ side — at least within reason — and, to some degree, so is the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Charnock said she and EFF boardmember Brad Templeton are friends, and the EFF’s main concern is that employees know when they enter the workplace that they’re communications are not free from prying eyes.

And with that, the issue of workplace privacy converges with the issue of consumer privacy. Are clear disclosures of tracking practices and informed consent all that matter, after which anything is fair game? Or do we want to guarantee a minimum of rights regardless what the technology enables and the contract stipulates? That’s a question I don’t suspect we’ll have an answer to anytime soon.

Feature image courtesy of Flickr user kissmygrandmother.

4 Responses to “Do we need a line between big data and big brother?”

  1. Mosaic Technology

    This is definitely a different use of data. If this technology became more common in the workplace, it could definitely stir a heated debate about the regulation of company data. It would be interesting to see how something like this plays out in actual practice.

  2. Why is the “employee flipping out” scenario that execs like Charnock talk about *never* a scenario about a top executive “flipping out” or chiseling the company into bankruptcy?

  3. Peter Quirk

    It seems like an expensive and intrusive replacement for regular 1-on-1’s with employees. We have weekly meetings to discuss anything but status. It gives employees a chance to discuss the stress of dealing with an aged parent, a sick child, a wayward college student, aspirations & frustrations, etc. It works for us.

  4. Father Bartholomew

    I think it is a great idea. I’d like to have them track my eye motion on my monitor to inform me if I have an eye ailment, track my trips to the bathroom to check whether I have a urinary tract infection, the number of times I get up and walk around to clear my head to see if I’m becoming paranoid schizophrenic, my breathing patterns to determine when I’m getting pissed off because my boss is a complete idiot and can’t see the forest for the trees, etc. Let’s protect the employee from him or herself. It is just in the best interest of the company and that must be, by definition, in the best interest of every right thinking person.