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Boeing bosses spy on workers
Boeing bosses spy on workers
Boeing bosses spy on workers
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By Andrea James
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
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
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
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,"
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
"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
=C2=A9 1998-2007 Seattle Post-Intelligencer
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