I was rather distressed by a WSJ article today detailing acquisitions by both Thomson Corp and Dun & Bradstreet of software companies that have developed programs to allow the mining of employee contacts through email programs and electronic address books. The software purportedly "helps" to create business by establishing a contact network but in the process violates employee privacy in a heinous way:
The software is supposed to help companies drum up business by allowing employees to make use of each others' contacts. For example, salespeople can pitch to a co-worker's contacts, while corporate recruiters could use the program to target employees' friends and acquaintances. The products work by examining the contact lists on employees' email programs, as well as other information such as lawyers' billing records or contacts stored on special programs for managing customer relationships. Then it checks how often individuals email the contacts and whether they have appointments for face-to-face meetings or phone calls on their calendars. The software uses that information to determine how strong a relationship a person has with the contact.
I could almost accept the argument that information stored on your work computer technically belongs to your employer. In that case, yes, the contacts may be okay to peek at. But to monitor your communications and rate the quality of interaction in order to determine how close the relationship is just screams privacy violation. The developer companies have added features to allow clients to set privacy controls (for example, enabling employees to hide individual contacts), but these controls are set at the corporate level for all employee users -- I wonder how many companies choose the higher privacy standard, given the purpose of the software.
This is yet another area where we see privacy being trampled in the name of technological progress. Call me old-fashioned, but I'd rather not have an entire firm of strangers viewing and contacting my clients, friends, and family. This is a scary precedent.