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Boeing guards its right to tail employees

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As Americans fret over the Bush Administration's efforts to eavesdrop on their telephone and internet communications, many of us forget how common it is for employers to spy on their workers. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer is here to remind us of that sad fact, with a story reporting on a program within Boeing that tracks employees' movements even after they leave the company's premises.

One team within the aeronautics giant has permission to secretly monitor employees through what amount to backdoors installed on company computers, according to the report. A worker's every keystroke, Gmail message or website visit is fair game for the so-called "enterprise" investigators.

One employee for Boeing, Washington state's largest employer, recent learned he was followed when he left company property for lunch. Private detectives also recorded footage of him as he was "coming and going" and accessed his Gmail account. Boeing notified the unidentified worker of the surveillance activities after suspecting he had been speaking to a member of the media. He has since been fired.

Boeing declined to discuss specifics of its surveillance program but told the paper it has multiple organizations that provide checks and balances to make sure investigations are conducted legally.

Lest readers believe Boeing is unique in its tailing of employees, it's worth remembering the Hewlett-Packard installed a monitoring system that snooped on instant messages sent by a company flack suspected of volunteering sensitive company information. HP also sent spooks to Disney Land to spy on a CNET News.com reporter and intercepted phone records of dozens of people it thought might be on one side or the other of embarrassing leaks.

While many of HP's investigators' activities were illegal, its spying on employees while on company premises or when using company computers and phones is perfectly legal. There generally is nothing prohibiting the trailing and recording of employees while they are in public.

The Post Intelligencer article comes as the Bush Administration is seeking a change to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) to permit wiretapping without a warrant when US citizens are not involved. Legislation has been passed by both the US House of Representatives and a Senate subcommittee. The bills come two years after The New York Times reported that government intelligence officers intercepted huge amounts of phone and internet traffic.

Several lawsuits have taken aim at the Bush Administration and telecommunications firms that secretly cooperated in the wiretapping. Meanwhile, employer spying continues with comparatively little fuss.

"Employees should understand that the law generally gives employers broad authority to conduct surveillance, whether through email, video cameras or other forms of tracking, including off the job in many cases," Ed Mierzwinski, a consumer program director at the federation of Public Interest Research Groups, told the Post-Intelligencer. ®

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