State high court rules surveillance cameras can be justified in workplace

Blinking red light hidden in teddy bear tips off 2 workers at their computers

If a blinking red light hidden in a nearby teddy bear turns out to be part of the boss's effort to watch what you're watching on your office computer, the state Supreme Court ruled yesterday that action might be justified.

The high court Monday rejected a lawsuit filed against a Southern California residential children's center by two clerical workers who learned there was a surveillance camera hidden in their office.

The camera and a related motion detector were set up by officials at the Hillsides Children's Center in Los Angeles County in 2002 in a bid to find out who was looking at pornography late at night on a computer in the office.

The center's director later said he didn't suspect either of the two workers who filed the lawsuit, but wanted to find out whether another center employee was entering their office at night to view pornography online.

Center management said that since the center served abused children, it would be harmful to have such an employee working there.

The two workers, Abigail Hernandez and Maria-Jose Lopez, sued the center for invasion of privacy after they discovered a blinking motion detector hidden in a teddy bear and learned there was a hidden camera as well.

The state high court, in a ruling issued in San Francisco, said the two workers had a reasonable expectation of privacy.

But the panel also unanimously said the privacy invasion didn't rise to the level of an "outrageous" action that would have allowed the lawsuit to proceed.

The panel said the action was justified by legitimate business concerns for the welfare of the children and about the center's possible legal liability. The court also said the intrusion was limited because the camera was activated only at night and only three times in a three-week period and the two workers were never caught on film.

Justice Marvin Baxter said in the ruling that misuse of office computers is an increasing problem for employers.

Baxter wrote, "Despite efforts to control the problem, the potential for abuse of computer systems and Internet access in the workplace is wide-ranging."

Julia Cheever, Bay City News, Jeb Bing

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