You're not being paranoid. If you always feel like somebody's watching you, as the song goes, you're probably right. Especially if you're at work.
Over the course of the Covid-19 pandemic, as labor shifted to work-from-home, a huge number of US employers ramped up the use of surveillance software to track employees. The research firm Gartner says 60 percent of large employers have deployed such monitoring software—it doubled during the pandemic—and will likely hit 70 percent in the next few years.
That's right—even as we've shifted toward a hybrid model with many workers returning to offices, different methods of employee surveillance (dubbed "bossware" by some) aren't going away; it's here to stay and could get much more invasive.
As detailed in the book Your Boss Is an Algorithm, authors Antonio Aloisi and Valerio de Stefano describe "expanded managerial powers" that companies have put into place over the pandemic. This includes the adoption of more tools, including software and hardware, to track worker productivity, their day-to-day activities and movements, computer and mobile phone keystrokes, and even their health statuses.
This can be called "datafication" or "informatisation," according to the book, or "the practice by which every movement, either offline or online, is traced, revised and stored as necessary, for statistical, financial, commercial and electoral purposes."
Ironically, experts point out that there's not sufficient data to support the idea that all this data collection and employee monitoring actually increases productivity. But as the use of surveillance tech continues, workers should understand how they might be surveilled and what, if anything, they can do about it.
Using surveillance tools to monitor employees is not new. Many workplaces continue to deploy low-tech tools like security cameras, as well as more intrusive ones, like content filters that flag content in emails and voicemails or unusual activity on work computers and devices. The workplace maxim has long been that if you're in the office and/or using office phones or laptops, then you should never assume any activity or conversation you have is private.
But the newer generation of tools goes beyond that kind of surveillance to include monitoring through wearables, office furniture, cameras that track body and eye movement, AI-driven software that can hire as well as issue work assignments and reprimands automatically, and even biometric data collection through health apps or microchips implanted inside the body of employees.
Some of these methods can be used to track where employees are, what they’re doing at any given moment, what their body temperature is, and what they’re viewing online. Employers can collect data and use it to score workers on their individual productivity or to track data trends across an entire workforce.
As you might imagine, the laws of the land have had a hard time keeping up with the quick pace of these new tools. In most countries, there are no laws specifically forbidding employers from, say, video-monitoring their workforce, except in places where employees should have a “reasonable expectation of privacy,” such as bathrooms or locker rooms.
In the US, the 1986 Electronic Communications Privacy Act laid out the rule that employees should not intercept employee communication, but its exceptions—that they can be intercepted to protect the privacy and rights of the employer or if business duties require it, or if the employee granted prior permission—make the law toothless and easy to get around.
A few states in the US require employers to post notice if they are electronically monitoring people in the office, and there are some protections for the purpose of collective bargaining, such as discussing unionizing.
In February, US Democratic senators led by Bob Casey of Pennsylvania moved to introduce legislation to curtail workplace monitoring by employers. It would require bosses to better notify employees of on- and off-duty surveillance and would establish an office at the US Department of Labor to track work monitoring issues.
Short of that, employees can make a formal request for disclosure of a company's data collection and surveillance policies, typically from the human resources department. Such policies may be outlined in an employee handbook, but also may not be readily available, especially for smaller companies and startups. Workers who are part of a workers' union can request the information through their representatives.
A company may not know it is required to post that it's surveilling employees or that it is in a state where two parties must consent to phone-conversation monitoring. You could choose to let your company know it's not in compliance, and if the company doesn't make changes (and you’re in the United States), you could alert your state's workforce commission or file a complaint with the US Occupational Safety and Health Administration or over HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) medical privacy issues.
Apart from all that, general data hygiene is also a good counter. Clear your browser cache regularly, and don't keep private data on work devices or transmit them over work email accounts. Block your workstation's webcam when it's not in use (if you're allowed to do that) and ask your employers if you can opt out of surveillance tools that are not required for your work.
Most importantly, be mindful when your employer issues notices about workplace privacy changes or when new software or hardware is introduced for the purposes of monitoring. Ask questions and research what these tools are if you don't get a good explanation from your bosses.
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