Assaulting Our Privacy: Nowhere to Hide

Using computers, high-tech gadgets and mountains of data, an army of snoops is assaulting our privacy.

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While data bases are an almost hidden threat to privacy, American workers are also finding themselves up against more visible measures to probe them and keep them under watch. When Sibi Soroka interviewed for a job as a security guard in April 1989 at a Target store in Pleasanton, Calif., he was asked to take a three-hour written psychological test. The interviewer told him that it would assess Soroka's ideas about the world of work. Soroka was stunned to discover that many of the true-false questions on the test centered on sex, religion and political beliefs. "My sex life is satisfactory," read one. "I believe in the second coming of Christ," read another.

"I was astonished at how intrusive the questions were," he recalls. "But I needed a job." Though Soroka received a job offer after completing the test, he filed a class action against Target in September 1989. His suit is believed to be the first major court challenge to the increasingly common use of psychological testing as a condition of employment.

Defenders of the tests say they are needed for such workers as armed security guards, one of the few kinds of employees that Target subjects to the examination. "When we entrust individuals with weapons to protect the public, I think it's important to assess their emotional stability," says James Butcher, a psychology professor at the University of Minnesota who helped revise the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory. An earlier version of that test provided many of the questions that were asked of Soroka. The revised version eliminates some of the inquiries about religion and sexuality.

Opponents of psychological screening say it is not only invasive, it's ineffective. "It just isn't the exact science people pretend that it is," says Lewis Maltby of the American Civil Liberties Union in New York City. "We have some ability to identify people who are potential thieves by a written psychological test. If you were to test 100 potential employees, you could $ probably catch 8 of the 10 thieves. But the only way you could do it is by rejecting 50 of the 100 people. So to catch 8 guilty people, you're denying a job to 42 innocent ones."

Surveillance at the workplace is also a concern for an increasing number of jobholders. Drug testing is just the most publicized variety. One increasingly common tactic is to listen in on employees who deal with the public over the phone. Reservation clerks, phone-company operators and anyone who takes phone orders for catalog companies and telemarketers are all likely to be monitored. So are the customers they talk to. The Communications Workers of America, a union active in the fight against such surveillance, estimates that 6 million American workers are subject to monitoring. Surveillance at BellSouth, a group of phone companies in a nine-state Southern region, is typical -- about two to five calls a month for each service representative and 30 a month for each operator, less than 1% of all the calls they handle.

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