Big Brother is loose in the office. Emma Cook looks at electronic systems keeping tabs on you and your work
THEY ARE untrustworthy and lazy. Their sole motive is to shirk responsibility, undermine the boss and rip off the company. They are the scourge of every modern American workplace and have a new name: "time thieves".

The term, created by US industrial security experts, applies to the sort of employees who indulge in a variety of unthinkable crimes: arriving late, leaving early, socialising, taking excessive tea-breaks and sick leave. Recent statistics to fuel corporate paranoia indicate that up to $25bn (pounds 15.6bn) is lost annually to staff theft, rising to $170bn if "time thieving" is included.

The only solution, argues management, is to keep close tabs on the potential enemy within. Consequently, sales of sophisticated surveillance equipment are soaring. Judging by the range of technology at a recent industrial security convention in Virginia, the art of "personal tracking" has achieved military precision.

Time thieves should, however, soon become extinct with the widespread use of such Draconian deterrents as keystroke monitoring. Once installed, certain computer networks can check on typing speed as well as error rate and the time it takes an employee to complete a task.

Another popular gizmo on show was the digital smart-card key designed to remember which doors - canteen, toilet or exit - staff swipe it through and how frequently. Potentially, the information can be used to draw certain conclusions about an employee's constructive use of work time. Staff can also be monitored at their computers if they log on with card keys.

Although America may be one step ahead on the paranoia front, British companies look likely to follow, in technological terms at least. Much closer to home, Olivetti Research Laboratory in Cambridge has developed the Active Badge system - now on the market.

About 2ins square, the badge is powered by a lithium battery and emits an infra-red signal every 10 seconds. lt is picked up by infra-red detectors linked to computers, which can be planted throughout a building - including toilets. Each computer "knows" where an employee is at any time, and can flash up a table of information: Name - Mr Jones; Position . - Accounts; Last Seen -Yesterday; Status - Alone.

Olivetti says it was responding to a demand for "the provision of location information about individuals". In simple terms, time thieves beware. Peter Rennison, an Olivetti spokesman, argues that it has been developed for less sinister reasons. "It's so easy to track somebody down if there's a phone call for them."

"Rather than running down a corridor after them, you can tell from the computer screen where they are and put the call straight through." The badge also interacts with the wearer's computer. "When you walk into a room the computer you use automatically powers up with your own interface and documents," he explains. "If you leave, the machine will "lock down" so no one else can use it."

Mr Rennison talks of friendlier uses. You could, say, walk up to a drinks machine, and it would provide a coffee with two sugars, because the badge knows your preferences. Too bad if you change your tastes. For the price of installing this state-of-the-art system, about pounds 2,500 for six badges and six sensors, it's probably cheaper to keep the right change handy.

Chris Proctor of the Communications Workers Union (CWU) believes that, coffee machines aside, such equipment will become increasingly intrusive. "It's an electronic ball and chain," he says. "If you want to get in touch with other people in the building why not install a public address system? What starts out as a basic objective to keep an eye on staff becomes more and more sophisticated."

Sue Cartwright, a lecturer in organisational psychology at the School of Management Umist, says such devices could seriously damage staff morale and levels of trust. "I imagine it would be very much resented. People would make the connection with being tagged like a criminal." She suggests a pager system instead. "Then staff can make a choice of whether or not to respond. It can track them down but hasn't invaded their privacy."

The badges are being tested out in a handful of local companies, including the Cambridge University computer laboratory, which uses more than 200 badges and 300 receptors. Chris Hadley, computer officer, was fully conscious of the implications when it was first introduced.

"A number of people, including myself, had reservations at first. Privacy issues have been thought about," he says. "Which is why inaccuracy has been built in from the word go - the badges aren't that powerful and none of the information they give out is held for any length of time. Also, wearing them is completely voluntary."

Yet David Boughey, a sales employee at On Line Media, another Cambridge company testing the badges, admits they have enormous potential. "They could certainly be used to survey people's efficiency. At the moment we don't hold that sort of informalion because it's of no interest to us," he says.

"But it could be available it we wanted it. It would be useful to keep an eye on who's doing what and who isn't."

Certain companies have already taken this idea one stage further with their use of "remote monitoring". British Telecom listens in on employee calls regularly to check performance and attitude. Last year, a telephone operator, Karen Hawkes, was sacked when surveillance discovered her call time averaged 73 seconds instead of the recommended 60 seconds.

According to Chris Proctor, Girobank has used keystroke surveillance for years, while Royal Mail has an entire investigative division set up to monitor staff security. He says, "It's just total control over people, the moment they walk into a building. lt also seems to me to undermine any trust between the worker and manager."

When Dr Cartwright researched the effects of telephone surveillance, she discovered that since its introduction staff had become extremely resentful and their stress levels had shot up. And she also came up with a surprising research finding from a recent experiment in the US where two companies removed all monitoring techniques. The result was an immediate increase in productivity.

This sort of evidence has made little impact on the US industrial security experts, who maintain that Big Brother can't be big enough.

Over here a similar picture is emerging. The days of escaping, unobserved and out of reach, to the toilet or canteen for a furtive cigarette or a quiet read may well be numbered.