Aug 11, 2009

Workplace Camera Doesn't Violate Employee Privacy Rights

Last week, the California Supreme Court decided a big workplace privacy case, Hernandez v. Hillsides, Inc. The case involved a camera hidden in an office shared by two clerical employees of a private residential facility for abused and neglected children. The director of the facility set up the camera after learning that someone was using a computer in that office to view pornography after hours, a violation of the facility's rules and mission to provide a safe place for abused children. After the two women who shared the office discovered the hidden camera equipment -- "small, blinking, and hot to the touch," in the court's oddly breathless description -- they sued for invasion of their privacy.

In reaching its decision in favor of the facility, the Court looked at two issues: (1) whether the hidden camera intruded on the employees' reasonable expectations of privacy, and (2) if so, whether that intrusion was offensive or serious, given the facility's justification for using the camera and other relevant facts.

On the first point, the Court found in favor of the employees. Although the facility had a policy warning employees that their use of company computers could be monitored, employees had no reason to believe that this monitoring might include video recording. The employees had a private office and were not warned about the camera surveillance. Also, the camera was hidden. Weighing all of these facts, the Court found that the employees had a reasonable expectation that they would not be subjected to secret video recording in their office.

On the second point, however, the employees lost. First off, the employees were never actually filmed: The director of the facility activated the recording equipment only a few times, and only after the employees had left for the day. The Court found that the facility limited its intrusion in other ways, such as by directing the camera only at the computer workstation which had been used to access pornography, leaving the system in place only for a few weeks, and limiting the number of people who knew about the surveillance. The Court also found that the facility's reason for setting up the camera -- catching the person who was viewing pornography -- was a legitimate business concern.

Unlike many states, California has an explicit constitutional right to privacy, and is widely viewed as protective of privacy rights. Still, this decision doesn't seem that surprising, mostly because the women were never actually filmed. It's not hard to see why they were upset by the mere existence of the camera (apparently, one of the women often changed into her gym clothes in the office), but it was never actually used to record them. If there were any evidence that the women were taped, it might have undercut the facility's justification for recording and led to a different outcome.