Employee surveillance is exploding with remote work—and could be the new norm

At the start of the pandemic in 2020, as office workers began toiling remotely on company laptops, many of their employers secretly followed, sending hidden, unblinking eyes into their homes to monitor them. Fears that workers might be loafing about, baking sourdough, or brazenly napping while their inboxes reached critical mass fueled a surge in demand for software that tracks employees as they do their jobs from home.

“Companies have been scrambling,” Brad Miller, CEO of the monitoring software maker InterGard, told Bloomberg in March 2020. “They’re trying to allow their employees to work from home but trying to maintain a level of security and productivity.”

Worker surveillance dates back more than a century, but it’s barely recognizable today compared with the days when the Ford Motor Company sent inspectors from its “Sociological Department” to make unannounced house calls at employees’ homes. Now employers can simply deploy clandestine software to monitor keystrokes and mouse movements on company computers, scrape emails, and take screenshots of employees’ screens. The use of biometric employee IDs that track workers’ physical locations—and even the length of their passing conversations with colleagues—has allowed organizations to keep a close eye on their workers, wherever they are.

This trend has accelerated in the pandemic: According to unpublished research from the HR organization Gartner, 60% of companies with at least 1,000 workers that responded to the survey had adopted these technologies by the end of 2021, compared to only 30% prior to the pandemic, spokesperson Teresa Zuech said. As distributed workforces become more entrenched, data-collection practices are rapidly expanding into uncharted and largely unregulated terrain. Activities once tracked in an office are now being collected inside people’s homes.

“The biggest concern related to surveillance in the pandemic is that the blurring of work and home boundaries becomes worse,” Jessica Vitak, a professor of information studies at the University of Maryland told HR Brew.

Privacy experts and researchers interviewed by HR Brew predict that in the coming years, employee monitoring could take on a more personalized and possibly more invasive dimension as organizations continue to allow employees to work remotely. For companies practicing some level of worker data collection, questions of consent and transparency will be crucial in maintaining employees’ trust.

The HR fly on the wall

For bosses who solemnly recall flexing their authority in a real, physical office, there is an array of tech tools that mimic that feeling by monitoring worker bees no matter where they pollinate. Companies such as Teramind, ActivTrak, Hubstaff, and Workpuls have developed tools that log keystrokes or capture randomized screenshots of whatever workers are looking at. Reports are compiled that distill—albeit incompletely—what exactly a worker did with their day.

The tools are ostensibly a means of ensuring productivity when workers could theoretically be slacking off watching any number of ASMR videos on TikTok. “Employers do have a legitimate interest in monitoring their employees’ work to ensure that they’re productive and efficient,” Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst at the American Civil Liberties Union, explained.

These reports, however, provide a fractured lens. “I think one of the new elements as well is adding AI layered on top of this, because, you know, AI logic can be opaque. So people are being judged by algorithms,” Stanley said.

It’s also resulted in some hilariously dystopian countermeasures.

Traditionally, working in an office means workers forgo some rights they have and expect to keep at home, but the new era of remote work has upended these expectations, now that data collection is happening in bedrooms and home offices. “It’s hard to prevent a child from walking across the back of…a Zoom call, it’s hard to keep your kids from being captured on camera and recorded, and I think people are aware of that,” said Aiha Nguyen, program director for the Labor Futures Initiative at the Data and Society Research Institute.

Except some workers aren’t necessarily aware they’re being monitored, or how. In a 2021 survey by the Social Science Research Council of 645 workers who had worked remotely at the same company for at least part of the time since March 2020, 23% of respondents weren’t sure if their employer had changed its monitoring policies or adopted new technologies to track them during working hours. According to one of the survey’s researchers, Jessica Vitak, that represents a concerning precedent. “The emphasis should be on the company to make sure its employees have not just been notified, but that they know about and understand these policies,” she said.

A function creep future

If 2020 sparked a mad dash to procure new technologies to surveil workers at home, the next few years could see them potentially permanently integrated into the corporate ecosystem. Surveillance researchers like Vitak call this phenomenon “function creep,” which occurs when technology is used for purposes beyond its original intent. “Stuff that was instituted specifically for the pandemic will then become the norm because many employers think more data is always going to be better,” she noted.

Of course, surveillance of both office workers and lower-wage workers across retail, restaurant, call center, and distribution industries was already pervasive prior to the pandemic, Cynthia Khoo, an associate at the Center on Privacy and Technology at Georgetown Law, told HR Brew. What’s happening now, she noted in an email, is “a more explicit continuation and escalation of surveillance that was already occurring through pre-existing data collection, tracking, and monitoring enabled by office technologies used regardless of the pandemic.”

Khoo sees function creep as a potential threat as well, and likened invasive workplace monitoring to the broader “context of policing and state surveillance.”

“Once major companies and employers claim or are granted expanded powers over those under their control,” she wrote, “that power can be challenging to roll back after the purported justification for it ceases to exist—which is why lawmakers and regulators should be acting to protect workers’ privacy rights, among other things.”

A bill recently drafted in the Massachusetts State Legislature aims to protect workers from “non-consensual capture of information or communications within an individual’s home,” though there isn’t any larger legal framework safeguarding the privacy of remote workers at the federal level. Ifeoma Ajunwa, a law professor at the University of North Carolina School of Law, argued in a 2020 paper that the “quantification of the worker in a manner and to a degree previously unseen in history” should call for new legal protections.

Generally speaking, “employee privacy law, to the extent it exists, is notoriously weak in the United States,” Khoo said. “Worker surveillance technologies, as well as the algorithmic management technologies they’re usually deployed in conjunction with, and employers’ use of them, are largely unregulated.”

Georgetown’s Center on Privacy and Technology released a draft of The Worker Privacy Act in 2020, a proposed federal law that would establish clear prohibitions on the use of data, require employees to explain what data they collect and why, in addition to establishing a “new division in the Department of Labor will enforce the protections of the Act.” So far, however, there does not appear to be any momentum for legislation at the federal level to create new protections, and the eyes watching remote workers from afar have largely unrestricted views.—SB

Do you work in HR or have information about your HR department we should know? Email [email protected] or DM @SammBlum on Twitter. For confidential conversations, ask Sam for his number on Signal.

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