by Darin Stewart | March 15, 2011 | Comments Off on The End of Anonymity Requires a New Culture of Trust
The Economist runs its Technology Quarterly in this week’s issue. One of the smaller articles, “Anonymous no more” started me thinking about the notion of privacy in the workplace. More specifically, do employees have a right to privacy while on the clock? I’m not referring to the privacy of the lavatory or the mother’s lounge, but rather privacy in the conduct of our work and the execution of our duties. Much to my own surprise and dismay, I find myself answering no, albeit with a substantial caveat.
The Economist story focuses on the digital footprints we leave behind as we browse the Internet. Between tracking cookies, “history stealing” and the byzantine privacy policies of social networking sites (and no, its not just Facebook), it is becoming increasingly difficult to be completely discreet while surfing. Transparency, like competition, is generally a good thing. Bad things hide in dark places. When we must put our name to something, we tend to be more honest, civil and upright. This is a social norm we tend to value even when it proves inconvenient. But most people, especially Americans, place a high value on privacy. We may be willing to use our real name to ask a question on Quora, but we don’t want our credit scores and medical records posted to our Facebook page.
However, it is important to remember that there is a clear distinction between “privacy” and “anonymity.” Google CEO Eric Schmidt commented on this in his keynote address at the 2010 Techonomy Conference.
Privacy is not the same thing as anonymity. It’s very important that Google and everyone else respects people’s privacy. People have a right to privacy; it’s natural; it’s normal. It’s the right way to do things.
Schmidt was quick to point out that absolute anonymity is generally not tolerated by society and could have dire repercussions if it were.
But if you are trying to commit a terrible, evil crime, it’s not obvious that you should be able to do so with complete anonymity. There are no systems in our society which allow you to do that. Judges insist on unmasking who the perpetrator was. So absolute anonymity could lead to some very difficult decisions for our governments and our society as a whole.”
It also leads to some uncomfortable questions for the modern enterprise. Most organizations require new employees to sign a statement acknowledging the company’s right to monitor their online activities. But even though we have the explicit right to monitor the electronic activities of our employees while at work, the question remains, should we? If so, should we monitor proactively as a matter of course or only when there is evidence of a problem? Will we get honest and candid input when we solicit it if the staff know that a comment can be linked to them even if submitted “anonymously”? The point is that there is a tension between the need for privacy and the desire for (and temptations of) anonymity. But as the Economist article points out, anonymity does have its uses and its lose has its consequences.
But anonymity is freeing. It lets people go online and read about fringe political viewpoints, look up words they are embarrassed not to know the meaning of, or search for a new job without being thought extremist, stupid or disloyal. In America some judges have recognized that browsing habits will change if people feel that they are being watched.
But again, is this applicable to the workplace? In a sense the question is moot. If you control the infrastructure, you can always track who is doing and saying what on the network. And for all intents and purposes, the ability to get the information in this context is the same as already having the information. When anonymity disappears, even if it is only a comforting perception of anonymity, the dynamics of an organization change. People may be more civil, but they will also be more guarded and cautious. As one judge cited in the article says, tracking online behavior will “frost keyboards across America.” The productivity gained by active monitoring may be negated by a loss of innovation.
Of course there must be safeguards in place to prevent or at least detect malfeasance whether it be leaking trade secrets or spending four hours a day playing Farmville. But there must also be some latitude for creativity and exploration. Such an environment of trust can yield big payoffs for the enterprise. I recently encountered an example of this in James Gleick’s excellent new book The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood.
Claude Shannon holds a special place in the pantheon of the information science. In July of 1948, he published a lengthy monograph in the Bell System Technical Journal entitled “A Mathematical Theory of Communication”. This paper established an objective model of information as a measurable and manageable quantity. It is from Shannon’s paper that we get the word bit and arguably the foundation of the entire information age. Shannon’s ground breaking work came out of explorations that could easily have been considered “extracurricular” by his employer, AT&T, but such excursions were not only tolerated, but encouraged. As Gleick describes it:
[Shannon’s] managers were willing to leave him alone, even though they did not understand exactly what he was working on. AT&T at midcentury did not demand instant gratification from its research division. It allowed detours into mathematics or astrophysics with no apparent commercial purpose.
The key element here, is that there was a reciprocal relationship of trust between employer and employee. Shannon’s managers knew what he was working on, even if they didn’t fully understand its relevance to their business. They trusted him to be working in their best interests and supported his efforts. Likewise, Shannon knew his supervisors were aware of his digressions but he also knew he was on to something and wouldn’t be penalized for coloring outside the lines while he pursued it (as long as he still met his basic deliverables and objectives). It is in such environments of trust that most truly disruptive innovations are incubated.
Anonymity disappeared with the creation of the first system log file. Privacy is abdicated when we sign a “terms of employment” agreement. This does not mean that we must work under a microscope. Enterprises must create a culture in which exploration and experimentation is both encouraged and facilitated. A good manager should know what their staff is working on, but shouldn’t dictate every activity. If anonymity is promised in certain situations, any digital footprints should either be erased or entrusted with one person sworn not to reveal identities, even to the boss. Staff should be comfortable with the fact that at any point someone might peek over their shoulder. The worst repercussion might be a bemused shake of the head. Hopefully there will also be the occasional gasp of astonishment and delight.
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