Monitoring and mythology

An alternative newspaper that I like to read recently published a discussion about an alleged US government surveillance operation.

Called "Echelon," the top-secret eavesdropping system purportedly uses a voice-activated apparatus triggered by suspicious keywords - "bin Laden" would presumably qualify. By some accounts, it scans all the nation's traffic in electronic communications.

Is monitoring possible on that scale? Those who marvel at the march of new technology might not rule it out.

But is it worth doing?

Questions about whether we should do everything technology enables us to do pop up now on all kinds of fronts.

The electronic monitoring of workers by employers is one. The newly reported numbers ("three-quarters of workers monitored!") sound ominous.

They play into a widespread fondness for conspiracy theories.

So, how real are they?

In 1998, I talked to a spectrum of sources for a magazine story I was writing on the topic. An ACLU official told me that the "1 in 3" watched-workers number then being cited was "conservative."

Monitoring tools had become irresistibly cheap and simple to install, he said. The heads of two firms specializing in monitoring technology confirmed this, speaking with unguarded enthusiasm about their "exciting" innovations.

And a corporate-security expert called the practice of keeping an eye on every worker "legitimate" in an age of computer crimes, tough-to-manage offsite workers, and worker-versus-worker litigation.

But how many firms practice the intrusive monitoring of which they're capable? The reality may be less exciting than espionage.

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