L.A. County workers object to new security cameras
Pasadena Star News | August 26 2005
By Troy Anderson
Officials with the American Civil Liberties Union and a Los Angeles County employees' union raised concerns Thursday about a system of security cameras that monitors workers at their desks.
The cameras were installed this month at the Internal Services Department Communications Systems Support Division in a move that county officials said was designed to prevent theft. But critics fear the cameras will be used to monitor other activities, including productivity.
"There are obviously privacy concerns,' said Bart Diener, assistant general manager of Service Employees International Union, Local 660. "It also sets up an atmosphere of distrust and kind of a Big Brother environment.'
In an anonymous letter sent to District Attorney Steve Cooley, the ACLU and county grand jury, employees said they are concerned that surveillance systems will be installed in other offices.
"They are just setting a precedent now,' said one employee, who asked not to be named out of fear of retribution.
Mark Colton, the Internal Services Department's human resources manager, said division chief Hal Hunter had installed the cameras on his "own accord,' in violation of department procedures.
"We are in the process of conducting an investigation right now,' Colton said. "At the conclusion, we'll make a determination of what would be the appropriate corrective action.'
Colton said Hunter had the closed-circuit cameras installed at a cost of about $5,000 as a "theft deterrent,' with a monitor in his office.
Colton said no written theft reports had been filed in the office, although he was told some equipment had been stolen.
Colton said officials have told Hunter to turn off the cameras. Hunter did not return calls for comment.
The controversy is the latest in a growing number of incidents nationwide in which employees have complained about electronic monitoring in the workplace.
Since 1999, the percentage of employers who electronically monitor employees has grown from 67 percent to 92 percent, according to a recent study by the National Workrights Institute, a Princeton, N.J.-based nonprofit organization that focuses on human rights issues in the workplace.
"There are well more than 1 million cameras in circulation and nobody knows where most of them are,' said Lewis Maltby, president of the institute.
"A significant percentage of American employers use hidden cameras. What we don't know is how many of the cameras are legitimate security cameras or how many are surveillance cameras.'
Elizabeth Schroeder, associate director of the ACLU, said the county case is unusual because it involves a government agency.
"It seems particularly unusual for a government agency to be doing this to its employees,' Brennan said. "Management can easily check on the productivity of employees through other means.'
A District Attorney's Office spokesman said no laws appear to have been broken and they do not intend to look into the issue further.
"Public employees generally don't have a reasonable expectation of privacy in their work area or office, whether they be in cubicles or otherwise,' said Chief Deputy County Counsel Donovan Main.
"There certainly are cameras in various county buildings that show public areas. But there would be no illegality if there were visible cameras that show the work area.