Bryson's America: How corporate America destroys privacy

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NOW HERE is something to bear in mind should you ever find yourself using a changing cubicle in an American department store. It is perfectly legal - indeed, it is evidently routine - for the store or shop to spy on you while you are trying on their clothes.

I know this because I have just been reading a book by Ellen Alderman and Caroline Kennedy called The Right to Privacy, which is full of alarming tales of ways that businesses and employers can - and do - intrude into what would normally be considered private affairs.

Nearly everyone is being spied on in some way in America these days. A combination of technological advances, employer paranoia and commercial avarice means that many millions of Americans are having their lives delved into in ways that would not have been possible, or even thinkable, a dozen years ago.

Log on to the Internet and nearly every website you go to will make a record of what you looked at and how long you lingered there. This information can, and usually will, then be sold on to mail order and marketing companies.

Worse still, there are now scores of electronic private investigators who make a living going through the Internet digging out personal information on people. If you are an American resident and have ever registered to vote they can get your address and date of birth, since voter registration forms are a matter of public record in most states. With these two bits of information they can (and for as little as $8 will) provide almost any personal information about any person you might wish to know: court records, medical records, driving records, credit history, hobbies, buying habits, income, telephone numbers (including ex-directory ones) - you name it.

Most of this was possible before, but it would take days of inquiries and visits to various government offices. Now it can be done in minutes, in anonymity, through the Internet.

Many countries are taking advantage of these technological possibilities to make their businesses more ruthlessly productive. In Maryland, according to Time magazine, a bank searched through the medical records of its borrowers - apparently quite legally - to find out which of them had life-threatening illnesses, and used this information to cancel their loans. Other companies have focused on their own employees - for instance, to check what prescription drugs they are taking.

One large, well-known company teamed up with a pharmaceutical firm to comb through the health records of employees to see who might benefit from a dose of antidepressants. The idea was that the company would get more serene workers, the drug company more customers.

According to the American Management Association, two-thirds of companies in the US spy on their employees in some way. Thirty-five per cent track phone calls and 10 per cent even tape telephone conversations to review later. About a quarter of companies admit to going through their employees' computer files and reading their e-mail.

Still other companies are secretly watching their employees at work. A secretary at a college in Massachusetts discovered that a hidden video- camera was filming her office 24 hours a day. Goodness knows what the school authorities were hoping to find with their surveillance. What they got were images of the woman changing out of her work clothes and into a tracksuit each night in order to jog home. She is suing and will probably get a pot of money. But elsewhere courts have upheld companies' rights to spy on their workers.

In 1989, when an employee of a large Japanese-owned computer products company discovered it was routinely reading employees' e-mail, even though it had assured the employees that it was not, she blew the whistle and was promptly fired. She sued for unfair dismissal and lost the case. A court upheld the right of companies not only to review employees' private communications but to lie to them about doing it. Whoa!

And to return to a well-aired theme, there is a particular paranoia about drugs. I have a friend who got a job with a large manufacturing company in Iowa a year or so ago. Across the street from the company was a tavern that was the company after-hours hangout. One night my friend was having a beer after work with his colleagues when he was approached by a fellow employee who asked if he knew where she could get some marijuana. He said he didn't use the stuff himself, but to get rid of her - for she was very persistent - he gave her the phone number of an acquaintance who sometimes sold it. The next day he was sacked. The woman, it turned out, was a company spy employed solely to weed out drug use in the company.

He hadn't supplied her with marijuana, you understand, hadn't encouraged her to use marijuana, and had stressed that he didn't use marijuana himself. None the less he was fired for "encouraging and abetting the use of an illegal substance".

Already, 91 per cent of large companies - I find this almost unbelievable - now test some of their workers for drugs. Scores of companies have introduced what are called TAD rules - TAD being short for "tobacco, alcohol and drugs" - which prohibit employees from using any of these substances at any time, including at home. There are companies, if you can believe it, that forbid their employees to drink or smoke at any time - even one beer, even on a Saturday night - and enforce the rules by making their workers give urine samples. That is outrageous, but there you are.

But it gets even more sinister than that. Two leading electronics companies working together have invented something called an "active badge", which tracks the movements of any worker compelled to wear one. The badge sends out an infrared signal every 15 seconds. This signal is received by a central computer, which is thus able to keep a record of where every employee is and has been, whom they have associated with, how many times they have been to the toilet or water-cooler - in short, to log every single action of their working day. If that isn't ominous, I don't know what is.

However, there is one development, I am pleased to report, which makes all this worthwhile. A company in New Jersey has patented a device to determine whether restaurant employees have washed their hands after using the lavatory. Now that I can go for.

`Notes from a Big Country' (Doubleday, pounds 16.99)