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Bosses’ right to snoop on staff emails is an invasion of privacy and ignores the way we work

Bosses can look at whatever we do on work devices, as long as this policy is communicated to employees first. Is this a step too far?

Since Edward Snowden revealed the existence of internet surveillance programmes such as XKeyScore, Prism and Tempora, there have been many discussions of digital snooping and its implications for privacy, freedom and civil rights.

Public discourse has focused on the dangers of the emergence of a surveillance-industrial-complex, in which secret services, global communications corporations and private security companies collaborate.

This focus has somewhat distracted public attention from another form of snooping that affects many of us in everyday life: employee surveillance. A recent ruling of the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) has alerted us of the developments in this realm of surveillance: a Romanian engineer complained to the ECHR about his dismissal in light of his personal use of Yahoo Messenger on a company device during working hours. He had not just messaged professional contacts, but also his family.

The ECHR rejected the complaint that the company’s monitoring of the employee’s communications violated Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which protects everyone’s “right to respect for his private and family life, his home and his correspondence”.

Who’s watching you work?

Companies’ surveillance of employees’ online communication is widespread. According to a survey of 300 company recruiters, 91 per cent of British employers check job applicants’ social media profiles. Another poll showed that in the US, 66% of employers monitor their employees’ internet browsing and about a third have fired workers for internet misuse.

But why is there so much employee surveillance today? Companies in general tend to favour the surveillance of communications of job applicants, their workplace and staff, property, consumers and competitors in order to ensure control over the production, sale and consumption of their commodities, thereby guaranteeing the accumulation of capital. Surveillance and control are inherent features of capitalism.

The key point in the ECHR’s ruling is that there has been “no violation of Article 8 of the convention” because the court found “that it is not unreasonable for an employer to want to verify that the employees are completing their professional tasks during working hours”.

It is important to note that the ECHR’s judgment was taken acknowledging that the company monitored two Yahoo Messenger accounts of the dismissed employee, one used for professional and one used for private purposes. The implication is that employers are legally allowed to monitor all employee communications during working time on company-owned devices.

Always on the job

The ECHR’s legal judgment seems to disregard changes to working life in the digital age that do not allow us to strictly separate working and leisure time. Under the conditions of neoliberal digital capitalism, the boundaries between working and leisure time, the workplace and the home, labour and play, production and consumption, and the private and the public have become blurred and liquefied.

Employees tend to also access and answer e-mails at home as well as on the way to work and back home. Many people search for job-related information on the internet out of regular working hours at home, in cafés, on the train – anywhere you care to imagine. Social media profiles often have no clearly private or professional character because social media are convergence media – our online contacts and communication involve people from different social contexts, including our family life and friendship groups and involve our working life, politics, civil society engagement and the rest.

The general tendency is that there is a 24/7 always-on culture that benefits companies’ profits and turns ever more leisure time into labour time.

Given that under such conditions many employees tend to complete professional tasks out of regular working hours, it is ethically unreasonable to grant employers the legal right to monitor all employee communications on company-owned or other devices. It is also not reasonable to assume that all employees can carry around multiple privately and company-owned laptops, mobile phones and tablets that they use either for personal or professional purposes with separate private and professional social media and email accounts at clearly defined and separated times of the day in order to communicate with neatly separated groups of private and professional contacts.

Need for flexibility

An employee messaging a personal friend via social media on a device owned by the company he works for, using either his personal or professional ID, is taking a break from work. Given the complexity of today’s economy and the emergence of flexible working times, it is feasible to assume that employees’ breaks also need to be flexible. Company rules, regulations and legislation need to be brought up to date with these complexities.

The unfortunate reality seems, however, to be that many employers, legislators and judiciaries assume that large parts of the day have to be seen as labour time that employers are allowed to monitor. In my view, such surveillance practices do not merely undermine the right to privacy and the right to private and family life, but also the “right to rest and leisure, including reasonable limitation of working hours”. They furthermore advance a workplace culture of suspicion, distrust and control that harms both employees and companies.

Adequate protection of workers’ rights in the digital age is a key political task. It can only be achieved by strengthening existing protections at the European and global level in the interest of working people, not by undermining such rights in the interest of corporations. In the digital age, labour time continues to be a strongly contested realm of human life.

The Conversation

Christian Fuchs is a Professor of Social Media at the University of Westminster

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Flickr: M.o.B 68 / New Statesman
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“I begged him to come home”: Breaking the taboo around texting the dead

Many people text dead loved ones to cope with their grief – but trouble arises when they get an unexpected reply. 

A month after Haley Silvestri’s dad died from a heart attack, she texted him begging him to come home. In the middle of the night Silvestri’s 14-year-old sister had found their father, with his lips and mouth blue, lying on the kitchen floor. “There was nothing there anymore, just a dead body,” Silvestri says. “My father had his first heart attack months before and seemed to be doing OK. Then, this happened.”

In the very first episode of CSI Miami’s seventh season, the protagonist – Horatio Caine – fakes his death. For the first 15 minutes of the episode, the viewer believes the character is truly dead, as the camera lingers on Horatio’s body face down on the tarmac.

Silvestri and her father used to enjoy watching the show together. After he had passed and she realised she would never see her “best friend” again, she picked up her phone. “I texted my dad begging him to come home,” she says. “I begged my dad to please be ‘pulling a Horatio’.”

"My heart was broken and I was bawling as I texted her over and over" 

In texting her father after he had died, Silvestri is by no means unusual. No official figures exist for the number of people who use technology to message their deceased loved ones, but Sara Lindsay, a professional counsellor, clinical supervisor, and trainer, says it is “more common than we think”.

“I see it as a modern and contemporary part of the grieving process,” she says. “I think in a way it's very similar to visiting a graveside, in that the bereaved are reaching out, particularly in the early days, because it takes a long time for people to process the reality that this person has now gone.”

Karlie Jensen, 18, texted her friend immediately after she found out she had died in a car accident. “I texted her as soon as I woke up to the news from my mom that she had passed. My heart was broken and I was bawling as I texted her over and over waiting for a text saying it wasn't her, that my mom didn't know all the facts, and maybe she was just hurt.” Jensen also called her friend and begged her to respond. “I did it because I couldn't let go and couldn't accept she was gone from my life forever,” she says. Karlie continued to text her friend while also calling her voicemail in order to hear the sound of her speaking again. 

Karlie (right) and her friend

After her first text to her deceased father, Silversti also began texting him once a week. She fell into depression, and on her worst days messaged the number. “I think it helped initially because it felt like I was personally writing a note to him, that I knew he only was gonna see,” she says. “I did it because it was my attempt at pretending he was still here and could text me back.”

Lindsay, who has over a decade’s experience of bereavement counselling, emphasises that this behaviour is in no way unhealthy. “I think on the whole it's a very healthy part of grieving, particularly in the first year where the bereaved faces agonising days without their loved ones,” she says. “There is just so much loss and change in their life that’s out of their control, I see this aspect of texting as a small way of being able to reach out and alleviate that pain. That person is suddenly now not there but how they feel about that person hasn't changed.”

"I was going through my phone and I saw his number – I wanted to delete it, but I hesitated I thought maybe I could send a text"

Despite being normal, however, using technology to talk to the dead is a behaviour we rarely – if ever – hear anything about. If the words “texting the dead” make it into the media, they are usually followed by a far more sensationalist “and then they text back!!!!”. Yet although messaging the deceased is popularly seen as the stuff of horror movies and trashy headlines, in reality it is simply a new, modern way to grieve.

Via Mirror.co.uk

“The first time I texted him I was on my bus on the way to school,” says now-20-year-old Dylan Campbell about his cousin Josh, who passed away from leukaemia. “I didn't have many friends so I had no one to talk to. I was going through my phone and I saw his number – I wanted to delete it, but I hesitated I thought maybe I could send a text and someone would reply or I would get something out of it.”

Campbell continued to send his cousin texts for a few weeks, “kind of like a diary”. He says he did so because he regretted not seeing Josh more up until his death, and “had a lot of things to say” that he’d never had the chance to. Linsday says texting in this way is a very healthy way of completing unfinished business. “There might have been something they've never said to their loved one that they want to be able to say and texting is a very normal place to do that.”

"Begging for a dead person to reply to you hurts since you won't ever get what you want in return"

Nonetheless, Lindsay notes that texting the dead can become unhealthy if grief becomes “stuck”, and the texting replaces normal communication or becomes a long term compulsion. Unlike Silvestri and Campbell, Jensen continued to text her friend in the hopes she would text back. She admits now that she was in denial about her death. “Begging for a dead person to reply to you hurts since you won't ever get what you want in return” she says. “I don't know if it helped trying to contact her or hurt worse because I knew I'd never get a reply. I wanted a reply.”

Quite frequently, however, this reply does come. After a few months – but sometimes in as little as 30 days – phone companies will reallocate a deceased person’s phone number. If someone is texting this number to “talk” to their dead loved one, this can be difficult for everyone involved.

“This story doesn't have a happy ending,” says Campbell. “After a few months someone from that number called me and yelled at me to stop bothering them – it was really heart breaking.” When Silvestri texted her father to wish him a happy birthday (“Saying I hoped he was having a great party up in heaven”) someone replied telling her to never text the number again. “I was pissed off,” she says. “Just block my number if it was that serious. This was a form of therapy I needed and it got taken away because someone couldn’t understand my hurt.”

Indeed, behind the sensationalist tabloid headlines of "texting back" is a more mundane - and cruel - reality of pranksters pretending to be the dead relatives come back to life.

"Visiting a grave is a clear recognition that the person visited does not exist in the normal day-to-day state of life, whereas texting allows for a suspension of that reality"

Silvestri, Jensen, and Campbell have never spoken to anyone else about the fact they texted their dead loved ones. Lindsay says that a fear of seeming “mad” combined with cultural phenomena – like the British stiff upper lip – might make people reluctant to speak about it. There is also a stigma around the way much of our modern technology is used in daily life, let alone in death.

This stigma often arises because of the newness of technology, but Christopher Moreman, a philosophy professor and expert on death and dying, emphasises that texting the dead is simply a modern iteration of many historical grieving practices – such as writing letters to the dead or talking to them at their graves. “I don't think the process of grieving is much changed, even if new modes of grieving come about due to new technologies,” he says. In fact, if anything, the differences between old and new ways of grieving can be positive.

“One important difference is in the sense of proximity,” explains Moreman. “I can text a loved one from anywhere in the world, but I can only visit their grave in one specific location. In another way, texting has the same structure whether I am texting someone who is alive or dead, so a sense of proximity also exists in the experience itself.

“Visiting a grave is a clear recognition that the person visited does not exist in the normal day-to-day state of life, whereas texting allows for a suspension of that reality. Some people may complain that new technologies allow us to ignore the reality of death, but there isn't any evidence that one way of grieving is more or less healthy than another.”

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.

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