Avoiding trouble when monitoring staff or customers: lessons from Snowden

Avoiding trouble when monitoring staff or customers: lessons from Snowden

It is now a year since Edward Snowden leaked a flurry of classified documents from the vaults of the US National Security Agency.

His leaking of highly classified material revealed previously unknown details of a global surveillance apparatus which was being operated by the NSA and many of its partners, such as the UK's GCHQ.

During this period, the leaks have been fuelling an unprecedented debate in much of the developed world on mass surveillance by governments and the line to be drawn between security and the citizen's right to privacy.

What does this mean for businesses?

So what can businesses and individuals learn from this debacle? After all, most businesses monitor their staff or customer's behaviour in some way.

Most individuals accept that some monitoring of them will take place from time to time. If you walk down Whitehall in London, you shouldn't really be miffed about being filmed on CCTV. If you call your bank, you can typically expect your conversation to be recorded.

So when does surveillance go from 'acceptable' to 'icky'? When does it start to feel just a bit creepy? When does a business cross the line?

Alas, nowadays, that line is fiendishly hard to draw.

The law does provide some help (see below), but businesses have to be a bit more sophisticated than simply spouting 'we are in full compliance with our legal obligations'.

The law is all well and good but if you start 'playing hard and fast' with what your customers expect of you, then you could find yourself dealing with a messy PR disaster and plenty of lost customers.

Just because you can monitor doesn't mean that you should monitor.

It strikes me that the key word that is often forgotten when this subject is discussed is 'trust'.

In an interconnected world, trust is more important than we think. When trust exists—and what an intangible quality it is!—things are just, well, easier. It is the superglue that binds us together and this includes businesses and customers.

If you over-monitor staff or customers, trust is easily jeopardised and vital relationships may be compromised.

Take a deep breath—as difficult as this may be at first—and trust your staff. Have some faith in your customers.

I attended an event on Monday evening which debated this topic. The Guardian journalis

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