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Does electronic surveillance do more harm than good?

April 18, 2017

The use of electronic surveillance in the workplace is almost a given these days, but a George Mason University professor worries the practice is doing more harm than good.

“It can be a positive thing, but it also separates management from employees even more,” said Carl Botan, a professor of communication in George Mason’s College of Humanities and Social Sciences who has extensively studied the subject.

The issue figures to be a heated one in upcoming years as employers choose to keep a watchful eye on their employees. Electronic surveillance was recently at the center of national headlines when President Donald Trump accused former President Barack Obama of illegally wiretapping him during the 2016 presidential election.

The advent of sophisticated software means that it’s considerably easier and cheaper now for employers to monitor their employees’ computers, telephones and emails, and videotape them at work.

“The old idea that your boss is watching you from behind some little peep hole is no more,” Botan said. “Now there’s specific software for that.”

Employers often cite the need for improved productivity, reducing personal internet use and providing a safe work environment as justification for surveillance. Critics, however, call the practice an invasion of privacy and say it adds further stress on lower-level employees, many of whom tend to be women and minorities.

Surveillance will naturally reap some positive benefits for employers, as anxious employees, unsure of when they are being watched, typically stay more on task, Botan said. But Botan worries that equation will lead employers to expanded surveillance, which could send a deeper message of distrust.

“Electronic surveillance is not just about collecting data and facts,” he said. “Electronic surveillance changes the balance of power in the workplace.”

Botan can be reached at cbotan@gmu.edu or 703-993-1092.

For more information, contact John Hollis at 703-993-8781 or jhollis2@gmu.edu.

About George Mason

George Mason University is Virginia’s largest public research university. Located near Washington, D.C., Mason enrolls 35,000 students from 130 countries and all 50 states. Mason has grown rapidly over the past half-century and is recognized for its innovation and entrepreneurship, remarkable diversity and commitment to accessibility.