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Lawmakers want firms to disclose monitoring

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WASHINGTON — Two conservative House Republicans joined a liberal Senate Democrat Thursday in introducing legislation to require employers to notify workers if they're monitoring their electronic communications at work.

Rep. Bob Barr, R-Ga., and Rep. Charles Canady, R-Fla., sponsored the House version of legislation that would force employers to tell employees if they scan or read their e-mail, monitor their computer keystrokes or Web use or eavesdrop on their telephone conversations. Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., introduced a companion bill in the Senate.

"We would never stand for it if an employer steamed open an employee's mail, read it and put it back," Schumer said. "It is the same thing with an employee's e-mail.

"This legislation says to employers that if you are monitoring employees' electronic communications, make sure you notify them first," he said.

The American Management Association said in an April survey that 73 percent of major U.S. firms record and monitor their employees' phone calls, Internet connections and computer files. One of four companies said they had fired employees for misuse of telecommunication equipment.

The New York Times, for example, fired 22 employees in Virginia last year for passing around potentially offensive e-mails. A month earlier, Xerox Corp. fired 40 workers for spending work time — in some cases up to eight hours a day — surfing pornographic and shopping sites on the Web.

Gregory Nojeim, an American Civil Liberties Union lawyer, said he knew of only one state — Connecticut — that requires employers to tell their workers when they are being monitored.

"The vast majority of Americans are not even granted the common courtesy of notice if their employer eavesdrops," he said.

Under the legislation proposed Thursday, companies that want to monitor e-mail, telephone and Web use would be required to inform employees annually or whenever monitoring policies change.

"New technology has made it cheap and easy for employers to secretly monitor everything an employee does online," Schumer said. "This legislation provides workers with a first line of defense against a practice that amounts to nothing more than a blatant invasion of privacy."

Barr likened employee monitoring to the Justice Department's "Carnivore" system, which can be placed at an Internet service provider to scan e-mails for messages associated with the target of a criminal probe.

"Do we have any privacy?" asked Barr, who opposes the Carnivore system because it could be used to read everyone's e-mail. "This is part of the same overall issue."

The legislation gives employees who aren't notified of computer or telephone monitoring in the workplace the right to sue their employers and collect damages of up to $20,000 per employee and $500,000 per incident.

On the Net:

American Management Association study: www.amanet.org/research/specials/elecmont.htm

American Civil Liberties Union: www.aclu.org/