Picking your nose at work when you think nobody’s looking? You probably shouldn’t. Not just because, come on, that’s disgusting, but also because you might be on candid camera.

How much privacy you can or should be able to expect in the workplace is a fairly hot button issue lately, as employers are making use of technologies that allow them to monitor computer use, emails exchanges and more.

This recent article in the Globe and Mail lists SpyAgent, NetVizor and WebWatcher as programs that can detect pornography websites or online gambling. But there’s a lot more that your boss can do to keep tabs on you.

Because we, at Workopolis want to know, I contacted Avner Levin, Director of the Privacy and Cyber Crime Institute, and Associate Professor at Ryerson University, to ask what monitoring methods employers are using and how much of what they’re doing is legal.

Levin rattles off a list of examples, including technologies that monitor and cache the websites you visit and flag keywords in your email; cameras for recording and observing; passcards/keys that can be used for monitoring location; cash registers to track things like whether an employee is engaged in a higher than normal amount of returns – a flag for fraud; and location tracking of mobile devices that can create a graphic representation of where someone or their phone is throughout the day.

Then there’s freakier stuff, “Things that employers have been using on a perhaps not as widely reported basis include key loggers — software that they would install surreptitiously on a computer and that will record every keystroke and every screen shot on that computer throughout its use.”

That last would likely be deemed excessive and unjustified intrusion, says Levin, but actually, there little to nil in the way of actual law in Ontario – Canada works on a provincial basis so, other provinces might have more legislature but in general, it’s a free for all. What we do have is case law.

Levin points to the case of Sudbury communications technology teacher Richard Cole, who has been charged with possession of child pornography. Last month, after three court proceedings, the Ontario Court of Appeal ruled that Cole’s charter rights were violated when police, without a warrant, searched a laptop loaned to him by the school where he worked. A maintenance tech had found images of an underage student and passed the computer onto a board official, who copied the images onto disc then passed the computer on to police. The court ultimately ruled that, while the tech and official had acted reasonably and the disc of images was therefore permissible as evidence, the police search was illegal and anything they found was inadmissible. Cole, they said, had a “reasonable expectation” of privacy. You can get more details here. And here.

Levin points to Cole’s case as “the first that said that there is some kind of legal protection to privacy in the workplace.” In Canada, he says “We don’t have a lot of actual law in the form of legislation or statutes that protect people if they work in the private sector.”

OK, here’s where I say I don’t think Cole’s rights were violated. The computer DIDN’T BELONG TO HIM.

I’m mostly in favour of an employer’s right to closely monitor their employees’ workplace activity. Your workplace is your employer’s house, and what you do in someone else’s house is their business, just like what you do in your own house is your business. This extends to your belongings as well, just like it extends to any computers and mobile devices loaned to you by your company. Some believe this sort of thinking will lead to a totalitarian workplace regime in which employees are implanted with tracking chips that administer electric shocks for calling Mother on her birthday. I think that the opposite attitude undermines an employer’s ability to set a workplace standard and serves to protect people with something to hide.

Still, cautions Levin, “The question is whether there should be any boundaries to what an employer can do.” There are employee freedoms, he says, that should be givens. “Are we comfortable with the idea that an employer can look at what we’re doing individually then tell us off for wasting time or sending a certain email? Is that the way we want the workplace to develop? Personally, I happen to think that there should be limits. There should be just behaving reasonably.”

Fair enough. I’m not married to my opinion. Also, I work from home, so it’s not an issue for me (that’s how we could all circumvent this entire problem!). Feel free to weigh in.