Employee surveillance tools emerge as a serious side effect of Covid-19

Dystopian products that track workers' every move have become hot commodities for managers who had to transition to supervise remote teams

Viki Auslender 08:4817.08.20
Time Doctor’s software takes a photo of employees’ computer monitor or smartphone at short regular intervals and sends it to the employer. It can even film the employee using the computer’s camera. Hubstaff measures the movement of the mouse and the speed of keyboard strokes to endure high levels of productivity. ActivTrak searches for suspicious activities by employees and examines them in context to decipher “true intentions,” and at InterGaurd they can install tracking systems to follow a worker’s every pageview or app and classify them according to their degree of efficiency to the employer’s assignment.


Employers can even share some of the data with third parties. “Build client trust by showing them the progress on their projects with screenshots and reports about the tasks that are being worked on,” the Time Doctor website boasts.


When Big Brother is your boss. Photo Shutterstock When Big Brother is your boss. Photo Shutterstock
These dystopian products have in recent months become hot commodities for managers who had to transition to remote work. In late March Google searches for “worker monitoring” spiked to an all-time high and tracking software companies reported sharp increases of up to three times the number of clients and revenue.


“We have seen a massive increase in the number of people needing our platform,” Hubstaff CEO Dave Nevogt said in an interview with NPR in April. Adding that he feels “like these changes may be here for good." ActivTrak CEO Rita Selvaggi told the Wall Street Journal that the number of requests from new clients was insane, alongside existing clients package expansion requests.


Such services are finding their way to many scared and confused business owners who fear losing control of their locked-down workforce. It’s not just worry that is fueling the managers. Some would say that the temptation to monitor, track and manage their workers with a push of the button from their living room is the main reason for the software’s success.


Among employees, the new trend is causing distress. Most complaints about working from home have to do with exhaustion from digital encounters, many fear that under the auspices of the pandemic a new norm of invasive and incessant surveillance is emerging—without any real discussion about its limits. If the debate ever takes place it is safe to assume that any attempt to roll back the practice will be like trying to insert toothpaste back into its tube.


“Technology is neither good nor bad, but it isn’t neutral either,” Ivan , a departmental lecturer in international political economy at the University of Oxford told Calcalist. “It all depends on the context it is embedded in. If the context is that most people need to find a job in order to survive, and when the cost of not working is constantly growing, what this technology produces is, by necessity, an increase in the relative power of employers over their workers. And this outweighs any possible benefit derived from it."


Professor Ivan Manokha. Photo: Courtesy Professor Ivan Manokha. Photo: Courtesy
Manokha has emerged in recent years as one of the leading voices against worker tracking technology.


"Employers these days can track and record all employee performance data and record it. The supervisor is always watching. Employees, aware of constantly being monitored and rated, strive to meet goals, perform better than others, and always record good performance. However, this has crucial negative consequences, such as high stress and anxiety levels, which often lead to burnout and employees adopting unsafe practices that could endanger them and others, such as truck operators who continue to drive even when they need to sleep."


All of the tracking software options currently on the market offer a list of tools to track employees, both digitally and physically. The data is collected and analyzed by algorithms that were programmed to identify performance problems. Some of the tools allow employers to decide whether to grant workers access to specific websites or platforms, measure their time spent on websites and applications and monitor how long they spend on their computer, on the phone, in meetings, by the desk, outside the office or in shared spaces - all of it dissectable according to the worker’s identity, their roles, their team allocation and by days, months and years.


Some of the programs can send automated attendance alerts if they note the employee hasn’t been on the computer for a preset time. Others can alert managers if a worker installed a USB drive into the computer or browsed to a social network to watch cat videos. All of it is recorded, nothing flies under the radar, the findings are stored digitally, searchable and presentable as automated charts, graphs and screen captures.


How much of it is legal? According to the legal counsel for the Israeli digital rights movement Jonathan Klinger, “the rule is to differentiate between various types of use cases. The first is what’s known as a ‘private box,’ when the employee uses a personal phone or computer for work purposes. In that case, the employer has no right to request that a tracking program be installed, or even condition the connection to a workplace network on the installation of such a program. However, if the employer provided a laptop or smartphone to the worker it must meet two rules in order to be able to install any spyware on the device: the employee must not use the device for private use and the employee must give his or her consent to any specific viewing of the materials on it. Meaning, that even if the data is collected the company still requires the employee’s permission to rummage through it. Monitoring is far easier when dealing with shared work computers. If it is labeled as being monitored, employers can implement full tracking policies.


Shared computers are more subject to tracking then personally owned ones. Photo: Pixabay Shared computers are more subject to tracking then personally owned ones. Photo: Pixabay
The rules in Israel are lenient compared to those in Europe, for example, where many states prohibit the routine use of tracking tools and permit it only under very limited conditions, such as suspicions regarding a particular worker’s output. Some countries, like Italy and Germany require that companies consult with unions or other organizations before installing monitoring tools.


"Nowadays, Management’’s ability to track the entire workforce and receive detailed information about each individual worker and the team as a whole, is nearly absolute,” Manokha said. “The supervisor is always present, even when they are absent from the office. This is unprecedented in human history.”


The relentless monitoring of people in the digital age produces an endless loop that causes employers to increasingly examine employee efficiency through metrics and data. The problem is that the data can’t really capture and describe the unique contribution of each and every employee. What may seem to an employer like a pointless session of browsing the web may actually be them searching for creative ideas from unexpected sources.


Surveillance creates another endless loop: the more the employer wants to know about the employee, the more the employee’s need for independence and freedom from employers' metrics pushes them to try to be less and less transparent. And the more employees try to hide, the more employers want to increase surveillance. Michael Entebbe, a professor of organizational behavior at the University of Boston, calls the phenomenon "self-fulfilling monitoring."


And if all that weren’t enough, studies suggest that monitoring may actually harm exactly what it was supposed to improve: productivity. In 2017, the U.S. Congress’s Office of Technology Assessment linked electronic monitoring of the amount or speed of work to stress-related illnesses. The pressure to meet metrics while an all-seeing employer hovers above them, pushes employees to work longer hours and exert greater effort - but this does not always result in greater productivity.


Stress harms employee productivity. Photo: Shutterstock Stress harms employee productivity. Photo: Shutterstock
Studies have found that surveillance often causes employees to change their behavior to match the software’s expectations, eroding their ability to function as individuals. Employees have reported feeling loss of control, which negatively impacts their feeling of security and their quality of work. A Data & Society research paper published in 2019 found that gathering massive amounts of data makes it easier for employers to carry out pay cuts, especially to contractors and freelancers, when calculating their wage expenses.


There is a clear trend towards adoption of such monitoring tools by more and more industries, with nearly no pushback from employees, Manokha asserts. “Even when it comes to invasive surveillance techniques like micro-chipping—inserting a grain of rice-sized chip into employees' skin that enables them to operate printers, open doors and, of course, monitor all their actions—not only is there no resistance, the employees gladly adopt it.”


It’s no exaggeration. On August 1st, 2017, the employees of Three Square Market were invited to a company event at its Wisconsin headquarters. In between mingling, employees of the autonomous machine company were implanted with a tiny chip under their fingernail that allowed them to open their office doors, make purchases from vending machines and access their computers with non need for a password. Currently 72 of the company’s 90 employees have a chip embedded under their skin that tracks their every move. In return, they received a t-shirt with the words “I got Chipped” written on it. Once, paroled prisoners had to walk around with an electronic bracelet, today workers relinquish their privacy for a t-shirt.


As opposed to the lively debate taking place in academia, for businesses it’s "cut and dry." Not all employees can be trusted and those who do their jobs loyally have no cause for concern. If someone resists being monitored, what does that say about them? The Covid-19 outbreak and transition to work from home only exacerbated the power discrepancy between employers and employees, especially in light of the soaring global unemployment figures, which leave workers with fewer and fewer bargaining chips.