The recent City of Ontario v. Quon decision has had a mixed reception among privacy advocates. Though many are disappointed that employees’ privacy rights have once again been narrowed, some have discerned helpful dicta in the case. However, I worry that, whatever the drift of thought among swing justices, economic imperatives and cultural shifts will mean a lot less privacy in the workplace of the future. Health care in particular offers a few interesting bellwethers.
As an opinion piece by Theresa Brown explains, maintaining proper staffing levels in hospitals is becoming increasingly difficult. Surveillance systems are offering one way to address the problem; work can be performed more intensively and efficiently as it is recorded and studied. But such monitoring has many troubling implications, according to Torin Monahan (in his excellent book, Surveillance in a Time of Insecurity):
The tracking of people [via Radio Frequency Identification Tags] represents a . . . mechanism of surveillance and social control in hospital settings. This includes the tagging of patients and hospital staff. . . . When administrators demand the tagging of nurses themselves, the level of surveillance can become oppressive. . . . [because nurses face] labor intensification, job insecurity, undesired scrutiny, and privacy loss. . . . To date, such efforts at top-down micromanagement of staff by means of RFID have met with resistance. . . . One desired feature for nurses and others is an ‘off’ switch on each RFID badge so that they can take breaks without subjecting themselves to remote tracking. (122)
Like the “nannycam” employed by many a wary parent, the nurse-cam may be seen as a way to protect the vulnerable. It may also increase the accuracy of evidence in malpractice cases. On the other hand, inserting a tireless electronic eye to monitor what is already an extremely stressful job may create many unintended consequences, or deter people from going into nursing altogether. Even advocates of pervasive surveillance recognize these difficulties.Continue reading…