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Technology The Boss Uses To Spy on You

Sixto Ortiz Jr. / Newsfactor Business | October 12 2006

New video surveillance systems store video digitally on networked computers, which makes remote monitoring a cinch. The boss might be off on vacation, but as long as the local watering hole has an Internet connection, keeping tabs on the office can be as easy as browsing to a secure Web site and typing a password.

Privacy... what privacy? Electronic eyes and ears lurk everywhere, from NSA satellites plucking phone conversations out of thin air to strategically placed video cameras silently recording the comings and goings in all kinds of venues, from schools to sporting events.
Employers today are also using all sorts of ingenious technologies to keep tabs on their rank and file. Anyone who thinks their work activities are private has probably been sleeping under the proverbial rock and is in for a rude awakening. Many employers today watch everything employees do, from email to Web surfing to chats at the watercooler.

Video surveillance technology, in particular, is improving rapidly and providing cautious managers -- as well as suspicious bosses -- with a snooping arsenal sophisticated enough to make a CIA spook blush. And the technology is getting less expensive all the time, so a business doesn't need to be listed on the Fortune 500 to afford the latest in video surveillance gear.

Yes, video surveillance today is both possible and affordable. But, how does it work, and ultimately, is it the right thing to do? Most people cringe at the thought of being watched by their employers. So, where do employer rights end and employee rights begin? Let's take a look.

Surveillance Systems Today

Traditional video surveillance systems use videotape, so getting useful information out of them usually means wading through hours of uneventful video to locate a few minutes -- or seconds -- of critical information. Also, traditional CCTV (closed-circuit TV) systems use VCRs and, most recently, Digital Video Recorders (DVRs) to store video feeds from cameras. Although these two technologies are "good enough" for recording surveillance video, they are rapidly being replaced by something far better.

Newer IP-based video surveillance systems store video digitally on networked computers, which makes remote monitoring from almost anywhere a cinch. The boss might be vacationing in Hawaii, but as long as the local watering hole has an Internet connection, keeping tabs on the office is as easy as browsing to a secure Web site and typing a password.

The IP Advantage

IP video surveillance provides digital files readily available to all authorized users, plus system accessibility from any networked computer via a Web browser, and the ability to digitally manipulate video feeds as needed. So, those who get way too toasted at the company Christmas party can now look forward to having their exploits digitally recorded for the entire company to see.

"Organizations today want the same kind of flexibility from their video surveillance systems as from any other networked application," says Keith Drummond, CEO of LenSec, a Houston-based developer of enterprise-wide video surveillance systems. And, he adds, IP systems for surveillance can now work together with burglar alarms, as well as manufacturing process monitors, and other types of support systems.

"In that sense," says Drummond, "video surveillance systems become the eyes of all other facility management systems, such as access control, elevator management, air conditioning, etc."

Brings a whole new meaning to the old saying: the walls have ears.

System Examples

LenSec's own IP surveillance systems vary a great deal in terms of customization and available configurations. But, says Drummond, everything starts with the number of cameras. "The cost of the system is driven by the type and quantity of cameras purchased by the customer and the amount of video they want to be able to archive." As a rule of thumb, Drummond says, "system pricing starts at $3,000 per camera for an entire turnkey solution, which includes system design, installation, and ongoing maintenance and support."

Another company, Axis Communications, can help answer the prayers of those who lust after an IP video system but already have a king's ransom invested in a traditional CCTV system. The Axis 240Q Video Server eliminates the need for videotape by digitizing analog video feeds using motion JPEG video streaming. And, since the server is connected to the enterprise LAN, the digitized video is readily available to all authorized network users.

You know a market is heating up when Cisco enters the game. The venerable manufacturer of network hardware offers now also offers IP surveillance systems based on its Intelligent Information Network architecture. These Cisco systems include Video Surveillance IP Gateways that encode and decode video using MPEG-4 compression and provide connectivity for analog cameras. Related components of the system include the Cisco Video Surveillance Integrated Service platform which records up to 12 different video feeds and provides up to 4.4 terabytes of storage. There's also the Cisco Video Surveillance Stream Manager Administration and Monitoring software which provides system configuration, recording, switching and monitoring (the monitoring is done via a PC client-installed application).

A fourth contender offering enterprise video surveillance options is WebEyeAlert. Their Network Video Recorder application runs on a client PC and can record video from up to 128 network cameras. WebEyeAlert software uses the existing IP network to move recorded video around. It also allows users to configure individual cameras for settings like the FPS (frames per second) rate, recording mode, resolution, motion detection sensitivity, etc. The Smart Search capability allows users to zero in on specific activities. Video clips of interest can be exported to removable USB drives, CD writers, printers, and can also be automatically attached to email messages for distribution.

The Legal Side of Video Monitoring

The news is bleak for those who cringe at the prospect of being constantly watched by their employers. Most legal experts agree that current laws are heavily stacked in favor of The Boss.

Parry Aftab, an attorney and expert on cyberlaw, cybercrime and Internet safety, as well as privacy issues, says, "Employers can monitor all they want as long as they let employees know. Monitoring is only off-limits in places where a presumption of privacy exists, such as bathrooms, locker rooms, etc."

Leonard Maltby, president of the National Workrights Institute, says there is never a legal problem monitoring open areas, but also agrees that sensitive areas such as bathrooms and locker rooms are off-limits. While only California and Rhode Island have statutes on the books that specifically prohibit the installation of cameras in sensitive areas, says Maltby, every state has common laws based on previous legal precedents that prohibit the use of cameras in such areas.

"In any state of the Union," says Maltby, "if an employer puts a camera in a bathroom or locker room they're asking for trouble." Of course, most people don't need a legal opinion to reach the conclusion that installing electronic peeping Toms in restrooms is a really bad idea. But, there is always someone somewhere willing to test the boundaries of good taste and legality. Hence the need for statutes that spell it all out.

Cheap and Easy

What is really troubling, says Maltby, is the fact that it's become so cheap and easy to spy on people using video cameras. Before, he explains, video monitoring was difficult and expensive. Not too many employers went to the trouble of installing such systems unless they had a good reason. "Now, video surveillance equipment has become so accessible and inexpensive that people are using it without giving it much thought."

So, the office tyrant may be just a phone call away from acquiring a state of the art digital video surveillance arsenal. And there is little or nothing the rank and file can do to stop it. "The bottom line," says Aftab, "is employers can do anything they want as long as they inform employees." And she cautions that, "in some states, employers are not even required to inform employees about monitoring."

Both experts agree on one point: Employees should be informed about video surveillance and stay away from surreptitiously installing cameras without employee knowledge.

"When employees find hidden cameras, it can cause anger and loss of productivity, especially when employers don't have a good reason or explanation for installing the cameras," says Maltby. "If you conduct video surveillance, do it for a good reason."

Parry Aftab concurs. "It's a matter of full consent and informing people. As long as employees are informed of the practice, it's acceptable to use video surveillance."

Here's Looking At You, Kid

After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, security concerns became paramount for many government and private organizations. And why not? No one wants another terrorist attack. But at the same time, many civil liberties watchers are concerned about sacrificing fundamental privacy rights at the altar of security.

Certainly there are many people who aren't too keen on constant government or employer surveillance, be it video, electronic, or telephone. Of course, video surveillance is just one part of a huge and contentious debate that's going to keep policy makers, as well as I.T. departments, busy for years to come.

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