Keeping an eye on government workers

August 26, 1994|By Knight-Ridder Newspapers

WASHINGTON -- Until recently, the government's $50 million monthly phone bill ran to more than a million pages and ended up boxed in a southern Illinois warehouse.

But in a development both marvelous and ominous, those bills are now available on six shiny CD-ROM discs.

Government bosses and investigators can now identify in 18 seconds -- and without a court order -- the date, time and duration of every long distance call made from hundreds of thousands of federal phones.

In theory, the new system will help managers trim personal calls from the government's phone bill.

But workers are discovering to their horror that these detailed phone records -- along with e-mail, personal computer data and fax records -- also are serving as powerful new tools for investigating employees.

Such investigations have cost people jobs and chilled the atmosphere in government offices across the country.

"It's amazing how often it makes your case when you can ask 'Well, who in your office phoned Mr. X at 2:20 on July 23rd and talked to him for 31 minutes?'" says Sherman M. Funk, recently retired Inspector General of the State Department.

"It's also amazing," Mr. Funk adds, "how few people realize how easily this can be done."

All new forms of electronic record -- phone and fax-billing, e-mail and computer files -- are "very dangerous to the person who creates the record," warns Francis A. McDonough, the government's top electronic information manager.

"Think carefully about what you say, and to whom," Mr. McDonough advises.

"Assume all telephone calls are traceable," says Mr. Funk.

"It's '1984' in the government, just 10 years late," says a senior investigator at the Labor Department, referring to author George Orwell's chilling 1949 book about government surveillance of private life.

Unlike wiretaps, which require court approval and full-time monitoring, probes of office telecommunications records are "technically easy, cheap and legal," says Lewis Maltby, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Workplace Rights Office in New York.

Only the privacy of the actual content of office phone calls is constitutionally protected, explains Joel Reidenberg, a Fordham University law school professor and specialist in workplace surveillance. Telephone billing information, e-mail and computer data files are open books for employers public and private.

"The government may have to clear some hurdles to get to them, but the boss doesn't," Mr. Reidenberg notes, "and, when the boss is the government, the worker's rights are extremely limited."

This sometimes comes as a shock.

For example, Resolution Trust Corp. investigators approached West Coast RTC lawyer Evelyn Davidson recently seeking the source of her passed-along gossip that the agency's chief executive officer was the subject of a corruption probe.

Ms. Davidson refused to name her source but agreed to phone him and ask if he would talk to the investigators. Her next call, traced by the leak-probers to an RTC official in Chicago helped get him fired.

Another RTC employee, Denver lawyer Bruce Pederson, was surprised to learn that his boss had ordered Mr. Pederson's office computer files secretly copied.

Mr. Pederson had testified in 1993 before the Senate Banking Committee that the RTC was not punishing many accountants and lawyers involved in bank failures, and he suspected that the action was an implicit threat of reprisal for his testimony.

Mr. Pederson's boss, Barbara Shangraw, claims in a memo about the incident that her electronic snooping was a "managerial prerogative."

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