US Congress meekly addresses workplace surveillance

Lame, popular, and easy to pass

US legislators in both Houses of Congress have proposed regulations which would require companies to notify employees if they monitor their computer, Internet or telephone use on the job, Reuters reports. The legislation would require employers to inform employees once each year about what information they are gathering and what they do with it.

More than 78 percent of large US firms monitor employee communications on the job, twice as many as reported doing so in 1997, the wire service notes.

The measure, introduced in the House of Representatives and Senate, would not force employers to change their surveillance habits and would not require them to notify employees each time they check on them personally.

Employees could sue for up to $20,000 if they found they were being monitored without their knowledge.

"We're not saying, 'abolish this practice'; we're just saying employees have a right to know when they're being watched," Reuters quotes Senator Charles Schumer (Democrat, New York) as saying.

The proposed regulation was introduced in the House by Representatives Bob Barr (Republican, Georgia) and Charles Canady (Republican, Florida), who also plan to grill FBI officials in hearings next week about the Bureau's surveillance system, Carnivore, which is used to monitor public e-mail traffic.

The FBI claims the system filters out innocent traffic to focus on specific suspects, but critics worry about its potential for abuse.

"It's part of the same overall issue," Barr said. "I think [surveillance] is a problem everywhere."

Because it doesn't place restrictions on the use of monitoring by corporate America, the measure should have an easy time getting through both Houses and reaching final harmony in Conference Committee. Call it a small, and rare, election-year concession to the individual. ®

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ACLU seeks Congress' help against FBI's Carnivore
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