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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Employers say monitoring is both legal and necessary to measure productivity and ensure that their telephone representatives are accurate and courteous in their exchanges with customers. Privacy and labor experts largely concede that employers have a right to monitor workers as part of training and supervisory functions. What they question is the value of employee surveillance -- and the acceptable limits. "Supervisors have said to me, you're being too friendly, your voice sounds too sexy on the phone," claims Shirley Webb, a Southern Bell service consultant.

Barbara Otto, a director of 9 to 5, National Association of Working Women, a Cleveland-based women's advocacy group, says such monitoring can backfire. Telephone operators who are penalized for taking too much time with inquiries already tell of cutting short customer calls. At the same time, the personal calls of employees pass through the monitor's earphone. "Employers start catching non-work related information," Otto complains. "They discover that employees are spending weekends with a person of the same sex or talking about forming a union."

The House and Senate have before them bills that would require a visual signal or audible tone on the line when monitoring is going on. Among the leaders in the fight against them has been AT&T, which lobbied successfully to kill one such bill in Virginia. "Factory supervisors don't blow whistles to warn assembly-line workers they're coming," says an AT&T official.

Inevitably, Americans have been looking to Congress to resolve the questions concerning privacy. One irony is that the Federal Government is the nation's largest data compiler. At last count, in 1982, it possessed more than 3.5 billion files on individual Americans -- an average of 15 per person, with more sure to come. Much of the data consists of uncorroborated information and hearsay, which could be potentially damaging to individual rights if it fell into the wrong hands. While the FBI has shelved plans to build a national computer bank that police could use to keep track of criminal suspects, it is still creating a data base on the 25 million Americans who have ever been arrested, even if they were not convicted. Meanwhile, the census is not just counting heads but peeking inside them. Instead of the usual short forms, 17% of all households last year received a longer questionnaire that asked such questions as How long is your workday commute? and How many people travel to work with you? Names of all individuals will be removed from the census files before the information is stored on personal-computer disks that marketers can buy.

Because the forms of privacy intrusion are so numerous and varied, no single remedy applies to them all. Congress is soon expected to tackle one of the most jolting new developments in telemarketing: the automated dialing machines that can call every number in a telephone exchange, one after another, to make pre-recorded sales pitches. Over the objections of civil libertarians, who say the machines are protected by the constitutional right of free speech, both the House and Senate are considering measures that would ban or severely restrict the use of autodialers for most calls to private homes.

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