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This tech could let bosses spy on you while you’re working from home

Employee surveillance tech is here, but is it safe?

Illustration by Alex Cochran

SALT LAKE CITY — Since the COVID-19 pandemic has led to a surge in people working from home, managers are looking for ways to virtually peek over employees’ shoulders. But monitoring productivity can quickly turn into surveillance with software that lets bosses do everything from track workers’ keystrokes to take over their computer cameras and microphones without warning.

According to the website Top 10 VPN, demand for employee surveillance software (based on internet searches for products) increased 87% in April. In May, searches remained 71% higher than pre-pandemic levels. The most popular products include Time Doctor, which can be used for website and app monitoring to cure “time-wasting habits,” Hubstaff, which can take screenshots to show what someone is doing on their computer, and FlexiSpy, which lets an employer know everything that happens on a company computer or phone without the user knowing they’re being watched.

There are major benefits to remote work, but as the lines between work and home become increasingly blurred and surveillance tech becomes more invasive, personal privacy is threatened, said Alison Taylor, executive director of Ethical Systems, a research collaboration based in New York. With an 11% U.S. unemployment rate as of June, more people are willing to sacrifice privacy for a job, she said.

“All of this stuff is incremental, and people tend to have the attitude of I’m not doing anything wrong, why would I be worried about it?” said Taylor. “I’m afraid we’re sleepwalking into a situation and by the time we recognize this problem, it will be too late.”

Liam Martin, a public relations representative for Time Doctor said the company sees its product as a “productivity tool” rather than a “surveillance tool.” Time Doctor can’t be used to track someone without their knowledge. All of the data is encrypted at a user level and shared with the employee in order to give them insights into how to better do their job, Martin said.

“We’re very passionate about people accessing remote work opportunities,” said Martin. “Even though our app may be perceived as negative to some, we’ve seen hundreds of thousands of workers through our network get access to bigger and better jobs through our technology.”

Why experts are concerned

The idea of monitoring an employee to see if they are working efficiently is nothing new, said Robert Hurley, a professor of business at Fordham University and the executive director of the Consortium for Trustworthy Organizations. The concept dates back to the industrial revolution when Frederick Taylor observed factory workers, timed their actions and established performance targets, Hurley said.

For years, video and software tools have been used to track the movements of blue collar workers like custodians and truck drivers. What’s different now is that employee surveillance has reached people with desk jobs who are bringing their work into private spaces, Hurley said.

According to J. S. Nelson, a professor of law and business ethics at Villanova University, there is no comprehensive federal law specifically addressing employee surveillance. For an individual who willingly enters into a contract of employment with a company and uses company-provided hardware, including phones and computers, there are virtually no privacy protections, she said.

“The problem is, we have this breakdown of physical location as well as other dimensions of the traditional employment relationship,” said Nelson. “Whereas you used to have to check in to the workroom floor, now your laptop could be at home. To surveil you at home and take pictures of you every 5-10 minutes, is to take pictures of you in your kitchen, in your bedroom, with your spouse, with your children.”

With new technology, there’s seemingly no limit to the data your employer can collect about you, Taylor said. Tools for tracking productivity, as well as new tools to monitor employee health, give employers access to sensitive personal information that could be used in discriminatory ways, said Taylor. She is particularly worried about how health and heart rate trackers as well as facial recognition software are being used to monitor workers’ inner lives. For example, some companies have kept track of employees’ steps in an effort to promote healthy habits. McDonald’s in Japan implemented facial recognition tech to assess the quality of service and check if servers were smiling or not.

“Managers will become aware of a lot of things about their employees’ personal lives,” said Taylor. “You will make employees feel anxious that they are being watched, and there’s a lot of evidence that that’s not good for performance in the long run.”

Research suggests that employees’ trust and commitment to an organization decreases when they feel they are being excessively monitored. A study published in the Journal of Business and Psychology in 2018 showed that invasion of privacy from electronic surveillance was linked to anger and counterproductive work behavior. Hurley believes that trust between a manager and employee is a much more effective way to influence productivity and control output.

Because ‘surveillance’ has a negative connotation, software companies like Prodoscore are hesitant to use the word. The Prodoscore product monitors an individual’s usage of key business applications such as email, LinkedIn and CRM systems like Salesforce. It compiles the data into an online dashboard and assigns a person a productivity score on a scale of 1-100. CEO Sam Naficy says transparency separates Prodoscore from what he would call surveillance products. Everything that a manager sees, the employee also sees, Naficy said.

“We are not being big brother and overseeing and snooping on the staff,” Naficy said. “We’re informing the employee that we’re providing them with another tool that will hopefully enhance their chances of success.”

Time Doctor knows a lot less about its users than the large social media websites that people use on a daily basis like Facebook, Google, Youtube, Martin said.

“On top of that, Time Doctor gives you your data,” Martin added.

But transparency is the “bare minimum,” according to Hurley. He suggests that employers should make monitoring programs truly optional for employees.

“If you are a regular joe with no union protecting you, you are at the mercy of whatever the employer wants. That’s arguably not ethical,” said Hurley. “There needs to be some basic human rights in relation to freedom and privacy.”