A new report spotlights the growing concern that many specialists now feel for the privacy of individual Americans. The report, by the congressional Office of Technology Assessment (OTA), found that new electronic and biological tools make it much easier for employers to monitor their workers' activities in ways that raise serious issues of individual privacy.
Invasion of privacy is ``almost out of control with the computer and electronic explosion,'' charges Rep. Don Edwards (D) of California, long one of Congress's staunchest defenders of privacy. ``It's an epidemic of monitoring: polygraph, drug, honesty tests, video surveillance.'' And there is the emerging genetic testing that Mr. Edwards calls ``ominous.''
In recent years privacy has not been a topic heard with great frequency in Washington, although one aspect of privacy - whether a woman has a right to abortion - has gained considerable attention during the current Senate confirmation hearings of Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork.
The future may be different. Edwards says he and others ``think that privacy will be a great issue for the next decade.'' If he is right, then Congress will face increasing pressure to deal with privacy invasions.
At present Congress is considering one proposal, by Edwards, that would require employers to use equipment that emits an audible tone when they're listening in on their employees' phone conversations.
But no measure is pending in Congress to deal with the most ominous area of potential privacy abuse: the new electronic equipment, especially computers, in daily use in American businesses. The OTA says about 6 million office workers today have their work partly evaluated by use of computers, and that the number ``can be expected to grow.'' Computers can be used to find out how much time employees spend on the phone, how long it takes them to do individual projects, and even what they say over the phone.
Broad agreement exists that computer technologies can benefit employers and employees alike. And, as the OTA acknowledges, employers' ability to collect information about their employees' performances helps both managers and the employees themselves, who can get immediate feedback on their performance.
At the same time, controversy exits about such monitoring, much of it without the employees' knowing they are being watched at the time. The surveillance raises three issues in particular, the report notes: privacy, fairness, and stress.
The OTA forecasts that an important issue in the future will be how to balance employers' rights to security and improved productivity and employees' rights to privacy.
Employer surveillance of employees is nothing new. What is different is that technological advances permit new forms of surveillance: not only by computer, but also by blood, urine, and genetic tests. Increasingly, industry and the federal government are testing present and prospective employees for drugs or the virus that causes the disease AIDS. Both areas concern privacy experts.
So does genetic testing in the workplace, which the OTA says ``is not yet a widespread practice.'' The purpose of these tests is to identify would-be workers who might be considered susceptible to illnesses; they then might not be hired.
In theory most genetic and blood testing is voluntary. But privacy experts say that coercion is indirectly involved. For many Americans jobs are difficult to get. Says one specialist: ``If a person wants the job, he'll usually submit to the tests.''