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Big Brother knocked in 2000

Workplace surveillance was the leading privacy concern in 2000, according to a new analysis released by the Privacy Foundation.

For privacy experts, 2000 looked more like 1984.

Workplace surveillance was the leading privacy concern in 2000, according to an analysis released Thursday by the Privacy Foundation, a Denver-based nonprofit that performs research and educates the public on privacy issues.

This year, millions of Americans were watched at work, as employers became increasingly concerned about employee productivity and their use of the Internet. Two-thirds of major U.S. companies now perform some type of in-house electronic surveillance, according to the American Management Association, and 27 percent of all companies surveyed now monitor email.

The Big Brother tactic has led to some people losing their jobs. Dow Chemical fired 24 employees and disciplined 235 others in September for allegedly storing and sending sexual or violent images on the company's computers. Xerox, The New York Times Co. and the CIA were others that fired or disciplined employees because of alleged bad behavior.

"Employers may be rightly concerned about security and productivity issues, or legal liability arising from emailed sexual banter," Stephen Keating, executive director of the Privacy Foundation, said in a statement.

"But pervasive or spot-check surveillance conducted through keystroke monitoring software, reviewing voice-mail messages, and using mini-video cameras will undoubtedly affect morale and labor law, as well as employee recruitment and retention practices," he added.

In the future, the foundation predicts that employers, especially so-called New Economy companies, may offer "spy free" workplaces as a fringe benefit.

Information falling into the wrong hands
Keeping medical records private was the second most important privacy concern in 2000, according to the report. Fears that personal medical data, disclosed to medical practitioners, could reach the wrong hands propelled new federal rules in December. The new policy, which could be delayed in Congress in the coming year, will require doctors to get patient consent to use medical records in routine matters, as well as give patients more access to their own records.

Privacy issues surrounding Carnivore, the online surveillance technology developed by the FBI for investigations, fell into the survey's top three. Civil libertarians fear that the FBI could use Carnivore to watch people through entry points to the Web or randomly read email communications. Privacy advocates criticized the FBI for releasing too little information about the surveillance technology in October.

The big 10
Top 10 privacy issues of 2000:

1. Workplace surveillance 
2. Patient privacy rules 
3. Carnivore attacked 
4. DoubleClick debacle 
5. The advent of chief privacy officers 
6. Changing privacy policies 
7. Merging financial information 
8. Wireless privacy battles 
9. Microsoft cookie-blocking software 
10. Emails, Web activity sought in legal cases 

Online advertising network DoubleClick also received top billing this year for its widely noted but unrealized plans to merge anonymous online customer data with personally identifiable offline data from subsidiary Abacus Direct.

After public outcry and a federal investigation, DoubleClick postponed its plans. But the issue highlighted the online profiling practices of online ad networks and marketers, causing a number of legal cases to be filed against online companies.

Because of such heightened privacy concerns in 2000, companies including Microsoft, IBM and American Express hired for a new position: chief privacy officer. In the future, the foundation predicts that universities will offer degree programs in privacy and business.

These were some other top privacy concerns in 2000:

• Online customer data became a hot commodity, prompting online retailers to change their privacy policies and inciting privacy advocates and legislators to tighten their watch over them.

For example, federal regulators blocked Toysmart.com from selling customer data after the company went out of business. And Amazon.com came under fire after changing its privacy policy to allow for transferring customer data in certain instances.

• Privacy fears cropped up regarding new legislation that allows financial institutions to combine customer information housed under different divisions and potentially share it with third parties, as long as they notify customers and provide them the option to opt out.

Advocates are concerned that the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act doesn't go far enough to protect consumers with the transfer of online information. In 2001, many more consumers may complain about the mishandling of their personal data by financial institutions.

• Wireless tracking technologies raised privacy hackles. Location-sensing technology for cell phones, under a new federal program called E911, and new ad-delivery plans fueled questions about privacy and receiving unsolicited email, or spam, via handheld devices.

The Privacy Foundation predicts that tech companies and federal regulators will keep spam at bay by setting industry standards on consumer choice to receive text messages.

• Microsoft issued a software patch for Internet Explorer that lets Web surfers automatically block third-party "cookies," or electronic surveillance tags often set by online advertisers to track surfing habits.

Bowing to pressure from some in the online advertising industry whose businesses rely on placing third-party cookies, the company has retreated from incorporating such controls into the upcoming version of IE and instead will support the Platform for Privacy Preferences (P3P) standard for IE 6.0. P3P allows Web surfers to control their privacy preferences when they visit Web sites.

In the coming year, the foundation predicts that "Web bugs," or barely visible tracking tags, and other online surveillance methods will upstage cookies.

• Email and computer server logs played a larger role in court cases in 2000. The federal antitrust trial against Microsoft tapped archived emails, and during the 2000 presidential election, the media sought the email communications of Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.

In 2001, the Privacy Foundation predicts much more of this kind of activity as people tap public open-record laws.