Privacy issues and the security manager
Privacy issues and the security manager

Nov 1, 2000 12:00 PM
Charlie Pierce

- As the usefulness of CCTV systems increases, so do the possibilities for the equipment to be misused. Careful planning can help you walk the tightrope between securing your business and invading your employees' right to privacy.

Fifteen years ago, we woke up a sleeping child and said to it ... Grow. And the child woke, stretched its short limbs and grew. It was a simpler time. Things were more defined. We all thought we knew what our objectives were. We were restricted by the size of the child and the cost of its rearing, and so we had few issues to resolve. Granted, there were those few in the crowd who would scream out for controls ... restraints ... cautions about turning the child loose. But they were labeled fanatics. No one listened then, and the child was left on its own to grow. That child was CCTV.

Today, we find ourselves surrounded by CCTV systems that are no longer restricted by expensive, cumbersome equipment. They are no longer held to six or seven parking-lot cameras with a switcher and recorder; no longer safe from those few fanatics that scream invasion. The fanatics grew up, too and hired lawyers.

Today, everywhere we look, we see cameras. Security-wise, corporate offices are asking for more and more visual information. Unfortunately, not all of the information is based on safety or security. Some of it (a small, growing part) has to do with general activities of visitors and/or employees. A question to ask is: Where does security stop and issues of invasion begin?

Specifically, let's examine the issues that the security manager should be concerned about. Where is the boundary between a secure workplace and invasion of privacy? For the most part, a well-developed and defined visual security system will avoid heavy, outside scrutiny. However, a single incident can raise the ugly head of public criticism which can only interfere with the overall objective of securing your facility.

The first step to any form of visual security today is to define where to put cameras and why. An overview should be written for each general area of your facility. The second step is to define the purpose of each camera. The third step is to remove, redefine, and/or provide public notice for those cameras that have the potential for promoting a feeling of invasiveness and/or a false sense of security for anyone who may, or may not, be aware of the camera's presence. These considerations constitute some primary differences between designing visual security and slapping up a camera on every corner for the sake of visual confirmation.

Once the initial system is designed and installed, the really hard part comes. As time passes, the obvious advantages of visual confirmation of areas and activities can lead easily to adding and/or relocating cameras within a system for purposes other than security. In addition, you can now call up the system from any point in the world and have complete visual and control capabilities. Suddenly, your visual security has the potential to become a management toy. Designer beware!

Step one: Where and why Since today's CCTV systems can accommodate several hundred or even thousands of cameras, the chance of stepping over the line in a privacy issue is higher. First, let's determine where we need to place cameras. There are obvious places to put cameras: parking lots, main and obscure entrances, back halls, higher-security access points, etc. But what about the general work areas where employees do their jobs? What about the general break areas, restrooms or locker rooms throughout the plant or office building? Are there problems such as vandalism, theft, or harassment in these areas? Do these issues justify the placement of a camera or two? And, more importantly, are there privacy issues? In most cases, cameras, either covert or overt, can be a tremendous asset to the security team for such situations. With the exception of locker rooms and related areas where privacy becomes an obvious issue, cameras provide the visual evidence necessary to take steps toward controlling and/or alleviating situations completely. However, two potential problems present themselves: One: whether the general workforce accepts the placement and/or purpose of the CCTV cameras. Two: temptation of management to turn portions of the security video system into a management monitoring tool.

Privacy is not easily defined. For the most part, we will leave it to the lawyers to decide what is or is not a privacy issue. However, sometimes it is fairly obvious that privacy is an issue. What about the areas that are not so obvious? Can I or should I place a camera in the general work area, and if so, for what reason? Certainly a camera in the general work area may prove beneficial at times, such as during an investigation of general theft. For the most part, the owners of the business have the right to place cameras in just about any area that they deem necessary. However, the security director must always remain neutral and be careful not to get caught up in what I call "The Thrill of the Chase." Sometimes it is easy to become so involved in what appears to be a proper investigation that we lose sight of the primary objective. The danger lies in the general response or reaction of the workforce if and when the visual evidence is presented for a case, either publicly or behind closed doors.

There is a second side to this problem. What if, in the process of looking for evidence against a specific crime or incident, discrepancies appear that have nothing to do with the crime or incident at hand. How that information is handled will determine how video systems within our general work areas are perceived by the general public. If the discrepancy you find is an actual crime, minor theft, vandalism and/or something along these lines, then the response would be obvious. You would follow normal company dictates according to set policies. If on the other hand, the secondary information is not within the confines of a specific crime, then you must proceed carefully. What would you do if you had a covert camera in a general work area and you found an employee spending 30 minutes a day sleeping at his/her desk? Do you report it and hold the tape for documentation? Do you ignore it, since it does not deal with a security or safety issue? Do you report it discretely to the area manager, suggesting that a personal visit at a specific hour of the day might prove interesting? Your response to the above incident can determine if you have invaded an employee's privacy or not. Granted, if management wants to install a camera looking for a sleeper, in most cases it is possible. But this is not a security or safety issue. So, your response as a security director is vital to the overall perception of the CCTV security system by the general ranks.

A false sense of security is another issue altogether. It is the result of people watching too much television and too many movies. In movies, every video camera in every security system is watched or monitored all the time by alert individuals. The result is that the average person sees surveillance cameras at work and is under the impression that they and/or their surroundings are being monitored. Then you put up a sign or two that says: "This area is under surveillance for your safety and protection," and you have a recipe for disaster. Suddenly, there is an added air of security. The employees act with an overall sense of well being. A false sense of security! These people act differently, move differently, work differently and in the end, hold you and your staff responsible if something happens. So, what do you do? You do the best that you can; pay attention to the details; avoid action specific signage whenever and wherever possible; and educate the general employee populace to the highest degree possible without giving away your overall security strategy. You also pay careful attention to those cameras that you plan to install within public areas. Placement, purpose, and general strategic planning will cut down on any false sense of security.

In the end, as the cost of equipment comes down and the access to video information becomes easier, today's security managers are going to have to work doubly hard to ensure the integrity of their visual security systems. Legal advice is always good to have, if in doubt. Each country, state, and city has its own impression of invasion of privacy and/or false sense of security.

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