Privacy: Who’s Listening in the Workplace?

A recent spate of high-profile incidents has laid bare the reality that in most office spaces where an individual is permitted to have electronic devices, there is the opportunity for a covert recording of the conversations within that room. Privacy be damned.

According to Katrina Patrick, an employment lawyer in Houston who shared her thoughts with NPR, “Surreptitious workplace recordings are commonplace.” Five years ago it was a rarity, she said, “but today, the question really is: ‘Why didn’t you record? You mean to tell me you have no recordings?’”

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The legal blog Lexology, meanwhile, admonishes companies that it is in their interest to institute policies that regulate the practice of recording in the workplace: “Such a policy should help dissuade employees from recording managers or coworkers without their consent and gives employers recourse to discipline employees who violate the policy.”

This is the age of the internet of things (IoT), an age that has provided us with ubiquitous access to the internet and its unending treasure troves of information, as well as the ability to archive every moment with ease. That low bar to entry to engage in surreptitious recordings has provided us with a plethora of examples to delve into—some colorful, some seemingly illegal and a few that leave us shaking our head.

Let’s Dig Into a Few of These Examples

Perhaps the most publicized case of an unexpected recording being revealed post-employment is that of Omarosa Manigault Newman, who has revealed recordings of her meetings with White House Chief of Staff John Kelly and at least one with President Trump.

Not all recordings are by employees capturing their employer or supervisor. In Calloway County, Kentucky, the courthouse installed a new security system in and around the county courthouse. Unbeknownst to the employees was the fact that the security system included 14 video cameras with audio recording capability.

Then, in mid-August, there was case that percolated out of the Federal Housing Finance Agency. Simone Grimes, special advisor at the agency, recorded conversations between herself and Director Melvin Watt. In those 2016 recordings, Grimes claims, she met with the director for the purpose of discussing a long-awaited pay hike and that Watt sexually harassed her, according to NPR.

In 2017, a Town of Henrietta, New York, employee was charged with eavesdropping, a felony, for recording her colleagues. The local sheriff explained that the employee had recorded coworkers’ conversations while she was present in the room, which happened to be the Henrietta Court Clerk’s office—an office in in which conversations concerning court cases was the norm.

As Patrick emphasized, the ubiquity of recordings by individuals of conversations within the workplace is the new norm. Employers and employees should work from the assumption that conversations may be covertly recorded. The expectation of privacy may exist, but remember that every individual with a smartphone has a recording device in their pocket.

Christopher Burgess

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Christopher Burgess

Christopher Burgess (@burgessct) is a writer, speaker and commentator on security issues. He is a former Senior Security Advisor to Cisco and served 30+ years within the CIA which awarded him the Distinguished Career Intelligence Medal upon his retirement. Christopher co-authored the book, “Secrets Stolen, Fortunes Lost, Preventing Intellectual Property Theft and Economic Espionage in the 21st Century”. He also founded the non-profit: Senior Online Safety.

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