Boeing bosses spy on workers

Boeing bosses spy on workers
Boeing bosses spy on workers

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By Andrea James
P-I Reporter
November 16, 2007

Within its bowels, The Boeing Co. holds volumes of proprietary 
information deemed so valuable that the company has entire teams 
dedicated to making sure that private information stays private.

One such team, dubbed "enterprise" investigators, has permission to read 
the private e-mails of employees, follow them and collect video footage 
or photos of them. Investigators can also secretly watch employee 
computer screens in real time and reproduce every keystroke a worker 
makes, the Seattle P-I has learned.

For years, Boeing workers have held suspicions about being surveilled, 
according to a long history of P-I contact with sources, but at least 
three people familiar with investigation tactics have recently confirmed 

One company source said some employees have raised internal inquiries 
about whether their rights were violated. Sometimes, instead of going to 
court over a grievance on an investigation, Boeing and the employee 
reach a financial settlement. The settlement almost always requires 
people involved to sign non-disclosure agreements, the source said.

Boeing desires to keep investigation details under wraps.

"We will not discuss specifics of internal investigations with the 
media," it said in a written response to P-I questions. "Issues that 
necessitate investigation in order to protect the company's interests 
and those of its employees and other stakeholders are handled consistent 
with all applicable laws."

But the tactics used by Washington's largest employer raise questions 
about where an employee's rights begin and the employer's end, and how 
much leeway any corporation has in investigating an employee if it 
suspects wrongdoing.

A recent case at another large company highlighted that investigations 
can go too far. In 2006, a scandal erupted at Hewlett-Packard after the 
company investigated leaks from its board of directors.

The company was ordered to pay $14.5 million and to bring its internal 
investigations into compliance with laws in California, the company's 
home state.

The investigation included reviews of internal e-mails and instant 
messages, the physical surveillance of a board member and at least one 
journalist, and the illegal use of deception to obtain telephone records 
of employees and journalists.

For its part, Boeing says that it has multiple internal organizations 
that provide checks and balances "to ensure these investigations are 
conducted properly and in accordance with established company and legal 
guidelines. We do not comment on individual cases or specific 
investigation activities."

An employee is tailed

Recently, a Boeing investigator told a Puget Sound-area employee that he 
was followed off company property to a lunch spot, that investigators 
had footage of him "coming and going" and that investigators had 
accessed his personal Gmail account.

The primary reason for the 2007 investigation, the employee said, was 
Boeing's suspicion that he had spoken with a member of the media. The 
employee learned the details of the investigation during a three-hour 
meeting, in which investigators laid out some of their findings. He has 
since been fired.

That particular investigation was connected with a July article in the 
P-I that brought to light Boeing's struggles complying with a 2002 
corporate reform law and cited unnamed sources and internal company 

"I wasn't surprised, but more just disappointed in them, that instead of 
looking at the problems, instead of investigating that, they 
investigated the people that were complaining and got rid of them," said 
the employee, who had been an auditor in the company's Office of 
Internal Governance and asked that he not be named.

"It's not quite indentured servitude, because you can quit, but when you 
look at the mortgages and car payments, especially in Seattle, you're 
not exactly free," said the surveilled former employee.

Experts say that tailing employees -- though surprising -- is usually 
legal, and that corporations have many options at their disposal to 
monitor employees. An investigator can do most things short of breaking 
into someone's home.

For example, under Washington's stalking law, licensed private 
investigators "acting within the capacity of his or her license" are 
allowed to repeatedly follow a person. Boeing's internal investigators 
are exempt under state law from having to obtain a private investigator 
license, but contracted investigators must hold licenses.

"It's worse than you can possibly imagine," said Ed Mierzwinski, 
consumer program director at the federation of Public Interest Research 

"Employees should understand that the law generally gives employers 
broad authority to conduct surveillance, whether through e-mail, video 
cameras or other forms of tracking, including off the job in many 

The law grants companies the right to protect themselves from employees 
who break the law, such as by embezzling money or using the company 
warehouse to run a drug-smuggling ring.

The problem, Mierzwinski said, is when companies use the surveillance 
tactics available to them to root out whistle-blowers.

"We need greater whistle-blower protections," he said. But, "if you're 
using the company's resources and you think it's protected because 
you're using Hotmail, think again."

Privacy laws ask whether a reasonable person would be outraged by a 
particular act; reasonableness is an oft-cited concept in law, explained 
Bill Covington, a University of Washington professor on technology law 
and public policy. Washington is a "will-to-work" state, meaning 
employees can be fired without reason, he added.

"We cannot write laws that cover every circumstance," he said. "A jury 
can apply a community standard of what they deem to be fair and right. 
There are just too many other situations."

Unfortunately, the public itself does not know what it wants, he said.

"I don't think we have made up our mind which way we want to go with 
these particular laws," Covington said. "You are having a classic clash 
between business ... and privacy groups."

You are being watched

So when does privacy begin? When an employee steps across the threshold 
into his or her own home, experts say.

"The only thing your boss can't do is listen to personal telephone 
calls; that's covered by wiretapping laws," said Lewis Maltby, president 
of the National Workrights Institute in Princeton, N.J.

Companies following workers typically do so to check on the legitimacy 
of workers' compensation claims. A company needs to know if a worker who 
claims injury is actually mowing his lawn, Maltby said. It is 
"completely inappropriate" to trail employees to see if they are talking 
to reporters, he added -- but it is legal.

As one expert at the American Civil Liberties Union pointed out, just as 
the average Joe could trail his neighbor if he wanted to, companies are 
allowed to trail employees.

"I can't harass the person, but there's nothing that prevents me from 
just following him," said Doug Klunder, privacy project director at the 
ACLU of Washington.

Klunder said that reading private e-mails is "highly questionable." 
Companies should be able to know that employees are checking e-mail, but 
should not be able to view the contents of the e-mails.

"We certainly don't believe that an employer should be able to read 
private e-mail content just because it's accessed on a work computer," 
he said.

However, "it's a tricky area because there aren't a lot of legal 
protections in Washington and in most states where we have 
employment-at-will. There are some privacy rights of employees, but they 
are limited relative to the employer."

When Boeing employees sign on to the company network, a screen pops up 
to tell them that "to the extent permitted by law, system use and 
information may be monitored, recorded or disclosed and that using the 
system constitutes user consent to do so," according to Boeing.

Rights for whistle-blowers

If a corporate investigation discovers employee wrongdoing that merits 
discipline or dismissal, workers have little recourse, experts say. 
Whistle-blowers, on the other hand, are afforded more protection, but 
only if an investigation is deemed retaliatory.

"There are no employee rights. Employees have little negotiating power," 
said Bill Mateja, former point man for President Bush's Corporate Fraud 
Task Force, formed in 2002. "Only if they're in the position of 
whistle-blower do they have a little more oomph."

Whistle-blower cases can be dismissed for many reasons -- the employee 
might not have understood the law, or the employer's retaliation is not 
severe enough to merit fault, "or it can be that the investigation 
cannot prove that the adverse action was taken for the reason that was 
complained about," said David Mahlum, assistant regional administrator 
for Region 10 of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. That 
agency investigates whistle-blower complaints.

Robert Ellis Smith, a lawyer and the publisher of Privacy Journal, a 
monthly newsletter, called whistle-blower protections the "wild card" in 
employee protections.

"Protections against electronic surveillance are virtually non-existent 
in the workplace," Smith said. "The one wild card for this is federal 
protections for whistle-blowers. Aside from that, the privacy laws are 
quite weak."

=C2=A9 1998-2007 Seattle Post-Intelligencer

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