Some workers' rights advocates believe it is corporate America, not government, that has been emerging as the clearest embodiment of Big Brother - the all-seeing, all-knowing entity in Orwell's novel "1984."
With technology already available or on its way, corporations can block your e-mail from particular senders, stop you from printing documents deemed too sensitive and record instant-messaging conversations among workers.
"People worry a lot about the FBI spying on them," said Lewis Maltby, president of National Workrights Institute. "But your chances of being spied on by the FBI are one in a million. Your chances of being spied on by your boss are better than 50-50."
Spying? Hardly, according to Microsoft Corp., America Online Inc. and others developing the technology.
Rather, they say, they are merely letting companies exercise their right to monitor use of their computers and networks.
Companies need more control to improve computer security and block junk e-mail, and such industries as financial services and health care face federal requirements to record communications, advocates of the technology say.
With most of these products slated to be released later this year, it's unclear how and how many companies will use the technology.
But in recent years, companies including The New York Times, The Dow Chemical Co., Xerox Corp. and others have fired employees for Internet use deemed inappropriate.
Companies can now spy on workers by intercepting e-mail messages or even installing software to secretly record keystrokes.
As new technologies get rolled out, critics brace for more legal battles. With few - and outdated - laws in place, they say, employers' ability to monitor instant messages and Internet-based phone calls is creeping uncomfortably close to policing basic conversation.
"There's just a train wreck that's coming," said Ted Schadler, an analyst with technology research firm Forrester Research.
There's a balance somewhere between privacy and regulatory compliance, and "it's going to take a few painful lawsuits," he said.
Microsoft, AOL and Yahoo! are developing corporate versions of their popular instant-messaging services. All let companies archive instant messages that employees send. In some cases, a company can decide who may message whom - and even block rank-and-file employees from reaching the chief executive.
MessageGate, a Bellevue-based spin-off from aerospace manufacturer Boeing Co., offers software for filtering junk e-mail. Companies can go further and use the product to identify, flag and seize e-mails that contain suspect phrases, so a designated compliance officer can review them. The software will soon do the same for instant messages.
Microsoft is developing Windows Rights Management technologies to restrict whether employees can view, print or forward e-mails and files. The technology is designed to help companies prevent leaks of trade secrets to competitors or the public, Microsoft said.
Critics contend the Microsoft offering is yet another way businesses are emerging as Big Brother and wielding more control over employees - such a technology, for instance, could create hurdles for whistle-blowers.
"It's the Wild West," said Maltby, the workers' rights advocate. "Employers can do whatever they want."
A 1986 federal law restricts employers from deliberately listening to personal telephone calls at work. Some states have passed laws requiring employers to notify employees that their e-mail may be monitored. But there's little else, critics say.
That means it's up to employers to decide how far is too far.
"It's a completely legitimate concern," said David Weld, chief executive of MessageGate, the message-filtering company.
But so are corporate fears of hacker attacks and government demands for recording communications, he said.
Without corporate instant-messaging applications that allow for greater control and security, some companies may have to shut off IM access completely, said Ed Simnett, a Microsoft product manager.
"Employers need to manage IM use, just as they do e-mail use," said Nancy Flynn, executive director of The ePolicy Institute and author of "E-Mail Rules."
"It's not a matter of Big Brother reading over employees' electronic shoulders," she wrote in an e-mail seeking comment. "Rules, policies and monitoring tools are designed to protect the company's assets (human and financial), future and reputation."
But the casual, conversation-like quality of instant messaging makes monitoring an even bigger threat to employees' privacy, said Lee Tien, a staff attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a civil-rights advocacy group.
"You really are just chatting," he said, which can prove to be "a bigger minefield for the person who's being surveilled."
The debate may soon extend to real conversations, as more companies embrace technologies in which voice calls are converted into Internet data packets and bypass traditional phone circuits.
Such calls aren't exactly telephone calls, so employees might not receive the same protections using them, said Richard Doherty, director of the research firm Envisioneering Group in Seaford, New York.
The laws "were written for an era that was telegraph and telephone," he said. "Now we're in an era of telephone and computer, and believe me the laws are not written for a computer."
By Helen Jung