One of the most important and persistent debates about surveillance involves the tradeoff between personal security and privacy. In previous research about national surveillance tied to terrorism-related investigations, Pew Research Center has found that a majority of Americans support the idea of government surveillance of others, including monitoring of American leaders, but oppose surveillance of Americans themselves.
One scenario in this survey places this tradeoff in the context of a workplace setting:
Several co-workers of yours have recently had personal belongings stolen from your workplace, and the company is planning to install high-resolution security cameras that use facial recognition technology to help identify the thieves and make the workplace more secure. The footage would stay on file as long as the company wishes to retain it, and could be used to track various measures of employee attendance and performance.
By a two-to-one margin (54% to 24%) a majority of Americans would find the installation of surveillance cameras and corresponding retention of data to be acceptable, while one fifth (21%) of adults say their consideration of this tradeoff would depend on the circumstances.
There are no statistically significant differences in people’s answers to this question by different demographic groups: Men and women, young and old, and relatively well off and relatively poor are all equally likely to say this scenario is acceptable.
When asked to elaborate on their answers in an open-ended follow-up question, a number of those who felt the tradeoff was acceptable argued that companies have the right to install the cameras on property they own and to make it more secure for workers:
“The job has the right to do this already so I expect it. I just don’t want them to get carried away.”
“My employer could choose to do this, but I might be unhappy about it. The boss is the boss.”
According to one focus group participant: “It would keep the workplace safe and may also get the employees to perform at their best.”
Others thought the idea was acceptable, as long as it applied to everyone:
“[It is OK with me] as long it involves all departments and employees, not just a particular group.”
Still others were anxious to know where the cameras would be placed, how persistent the surveillance would be and how long the records might be retained:
It would depend on where in the workplace the cameras are installed. How will the footage be destroyed? If they have to track employees’ attendance and performance this way, it seems the company does not trust its employees to come to work and do their jobs.
“Cameras to track people coming in and out of a building, locker room area or entering an office area are just fine and actually a good thing for security. Cameras tracking places where there is public involved are fine for security, such as lobby areas. Cameras tracking employees who handle sensitive data and money are fine, such as cash registers and those who handle data such as social security numbers, but the cameras should only be used for honesty issues, not performance. Cameras in non-cash/sensitive data areas in any workplace are just intrusive, such as in office areas. Cameras should never be used for performance issues. They should only be used for security issues such as like the ones I described.”
“It would depend on where in the workplace the cameras are installed. How will the footage be destroyed? If they have to track employees’ attendance and performance this way, it seems the company does not trust its employees to come to work and do their jobs.”
“It depends on whether I would be watched and filmed every minute of the day during everything I do.”
“The information is not being used for what was the original purpose in collecting it. It’s not clear employees would be told how long the data would be saved and who would have access. In any case, the original purpose would be OK with me, but then the monitoring should be stopped once the issue has been resolved.”
“Security cameras = yes. Cameras to track attendance and performance = no way. That is just ridiculous. I find it dishonest the company says it’s to make the workplace ‘more secure.’ That is a lie.”
“Who would have access to the footage and how securely it would be stored?”
Still others felt that any scheme of this type is too intrusive:
“No Big Brother spying is good. Corporate America is screwing American citizens enough.”
“Monitoring work by camera is insane.”
Some were suspicious of the motives of any firm that would seek this kind of surveillance:
They say that it will only be used to see who has been stealing, but the reality is we all know that is not the truth.
“This could very easily be abused and would hinder performance if every employee felt surveilled all the time.”
“They say that it will only be used to see who has been stealing, but the reality is we all know that is not the truth.”
“Because some employers are very abusive of their power to check on you.”
“Because the company could save a lot of different feeds and then use them all at once to make a person look bad so they could just terminate them.”
“It could come back and bite YOU. [I] used to be a union steward when I worked, and management already monitors everything you do. It sent to management when I clocked onto my computer in the morning, I got written up because I logged on before 8 am. All of our e-mails were monitored every day by an IT [information technology] company. Cameras were everywhere.”
“The total use of the system is unacceptable. Identifying thieves is one thing, but this would be used in ways not intended.”
“This idea just bothers me. The workplace should not feel like a prison in which you have everyone watching your every move, basically breathing down your neck at all times.”
The possible long-term retention of the surveillance camera records made some respondents uncomfortable:
The company would be able to use it for situations that have nothing to do with the theft and they could keep and use the info as long as they like.
“There should be limits on how long the employer can keep the records or what they are allowed to do with the records. Additionally, the feeling of constantly being watched/monitored would not make for a good work environment. There are less intrusive means of preventing theft. This seems more like an excuse to install video performance monitoring.”
“The company would be able to use it for situations that have nothing to do with the theft and they could keep and use the info as long as they like.”
“One problem has nothing to do with the other. Use of cameras to deter theft is one thing, but to track employee is another. Fake excuse.”
Some simply argued that the installation of surveillance cameras would not solve the problem:
“Because it’s not for a limited purpose/time. Once cameras installed [it is] very difficult to go back. Over-intrusive in terms of capturing everyone’s facial recognition and under-inclusive in terms of actually taking steps to identify and stop the thieves.”
“This is not going to reduce people stealing. This is just going to cause good employees to be more micro-managed.”
And the final word on this subject comes from someone who accepted the premise of the scenario, yet still would seek a job elsewhere:
“When you accept employment you accept the fact that while you are on premises the company has the right to know how you are spending their paid time. That being said, facial recognition would most likely have me looking for another job. Petty theft happens in all facets of society. A total nanny state is not the answer. I will not give up my freedom and privacy for a false sense of security.”