Prior to Samuel Warren and Louis Brandeis’ 1890 article “The Right to Privacy”, privacy was of little concern to most people (Boatright, 2007). Since that groundbreaking work, concern over privacy matters in personal and public life has increased with the pace of technology. As technology invades almost every aspect of daily life, so does the possibility of privacy invasion. For example, even something as mundane as a pre-paid toll card, has wide ranging privacy ramifications as various organizations clamor for the information collected at toll booths (Barr, 2007).
There are two major groups of thought concerning the significance of privacy: utilitarian and Kantian. Utilitarian philosophers are concerned with the consequences of actions and whether they can be measured as positive or negative. One argument this school of thought proposes is that great harm can be done to an individual when a company makes personnel decisions based on inaccurate information regarding private matters. As is common for utilitarian thinkers, no concern is shown for whether the information should be gathered, merely that it might be used inappropriately. Kantian philosophers attack this hole in the utilitarian argument (Boatright, 2007).
In addition to their attacks on the utilitarian arguments for privacy, Kantian thinkers have their own opinions on the matter. Stanley I. Benn noted that spying on an individual showed a great disrespect for him or her as a person. Other Kantian philosophers expand on this by pointing out that when a person’s privacy is invaded they lose the ability to act autonomously. In other words, they lose the very thing that defines what it means to be human: free will (Boatright, 2007). As an example, Catherine Fisk (2006) points out that enforcing a dress code at work denies employees the ability to define themselves. This is just one of the challenges to privacy faced by employees today.
As technology has advanced, employers have discovered more ways to monitor employees while they work. Employers claim that the increasing complexity of today’s jobs require them to increase the monitoring of employees to ensure against theft and provide a safe workplace. Although monitoring has always been a part of employee supervision, modern technologies have given supervisors unprecedented access into the minutia of an employee’s workday. In addition to this active monitoring, employees’ medical information is often available to the employer for use in the administration of employee benefits (Boatright, 2007).
The use of psychological testing is another area where the privacy of employees is challenged. Although psychological testing has been in use for nearly a century, studies have shown that the usefulness of these tests is questionable at best. Some critics have pointed out that the irony of integrity-based psychological tests is that passing the test often requires some measure of dishonesty. Although psychological testing might have some small value in the workplace, it’s inappropriate to depend on this sort of testing when making personnel decisions (Boatright, 2007).
Businesses would surely jump at the chance to psychologically evaluate their consumers. Instead, they are forced to gather data via more overt methods such as shopping cards or toll tags. As this information regarding the shopping habits of consumers is collected, it is stored in large marketing databases where it can be used to target marketing at a per-consumer level. Consumers are not usually opposed to this kind of data collection as long as the data resides with the company that the consumer surrendered the information to. Unfortunately, it is all too common for companies to sell this information in the form of mailing lists or, in the case of Reader’s Digest, medical questionnaires (Boatright, 2007).
With the explosion of technology have come increased questions of privacy. Modern communications systems allow employees to work more efficiently, but grant unprecedented levels of monitoring access to supervisors. The urge to use this new ability is often more than employers can resist. Coupled with privacy invasions in the marketplace, individuals must be constantly on guard to ensure their privacy is protected.
Barr, B. (2007, August 15). The real toll is your privacy: ‘Cruise cards’ info can be used by others. The Atlanta Journal – Constitution,p. A.15. Retrieved June 5, 2008, from ProQuest National Newspapers Expanded database.
Boatright, J. (2007). Ethics and the conduct of business, 5th ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.
Fisk, C. L. (2006, March). Privacy, power, and humiliation at work: Re-examining appearance regulation as an invasion of privacy. Duke Law School Legal Studies Paper No. 101. Retrieved June 5, 2008 from http://ssrn.com/abstract=893148.