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Employers Are Spying on Remote Workers in Their Homes

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The future of work is here, ush­ered in by a glob­al pan­dem­ic. But is it turn­ing employ­ment into a Work­ers’ Par­adise of work­ing at home? Or more of a Big Broth­er panopticon?

Dis­turb­ing increas­es in use of dig­i­tal sur­veil­lance tech­nolo­gies by employ­ers to mon­i­tor their remote work­ers is rais­ing alarm bells. With the num­ber of remote work­ers surg­ing as a result of the pan­dem­ic—42% of U.S. work­ers are now doing their jobs from their kitchens, liv­ing rooms and home offices—a num­ber of employ­ers have begun requir­ing their work­ers to down­load spy­ing soft­ware to their lap­tops and smart­phones. The goal is for busi­ness­es to mon­i­tor what their remote employ­ees do all day, and to track job per­for­mance and pro­duc­tiv­i­ty and reduce so-called “cyber-slack­ing.”

Busi­ness soft­ware prod­ucts from Hub­staff, which tracks a worker’s mouse move­ments, key­board strokes, web­pages vis­it­ed, email, file trans­fers and appli­ca­tions used, are surg­ing in sales. So are sales for TSheets, which work­ers down­load to their smart­phones so that employ­ers can track their loca­tion. Anoth­er prod­uct, called Time Doc­tor, down­loads videos of employ­ees’ screens and uses a com­put­er’s web­cam, which can take a pic­ture of the employ­ee every 10 min­utes. As one work­er who was sub­ject­ed to Time Doc­tor told NPR, “If you’re idle for a few min­utes, if you go to the bath­room or to the kitchen, a pop-up comes up and says, ‘You have 60 sec­onds to start work­ing again or we’re going to pause your time.’” 

Anoth­er sys­tem, Inter­Guard, can be secret­ly installed on work­ers’ com­put­ers. As the Wash­ing­ton Post notes, it “cre­ates a minute-by-minute time­line of every app and web­site they view, cat­e­go­riz­ing each as ‘pro­duc­tive’ or ‘unpro­duc­tive’ and rank­ing work­ers by their ‘pro­duc­tiv­i­ty score.’” Oth­er employ­ers are using a low­er tech approach, requir­ing work­ers to stay on a tele­con­fer­ence like Zoom all day so they can be con­tin­u­al­ly watched.

Since the Covid-19 out­break, one sur­veil­lance com­pa­ny, Aware­ness Tech­nolo­gies, Inc., says it has seen its sales triple. Exec­u­tives at Hub­staff and Tera­mind also say demand for their com­pa­nies’ mon­i­tor­ing prod­ucts have tripled. One web­site show­ing “Employ­ee Mon­i­tor­ing Soft­ware in the USA” lists near­ly 70 com­pa­nies with prod­ucts for sale.

Out­dat­ed laws keep it legal

Online sur­veil­lance of employ­ees may seem inva­sive and creepy, but it is a legal prac­tice in the Unit­ed States. Indi­vid­ual state laws vary over whether com­pa­nies must inform work­ers that they’re using track­ing soft­ware, but in real­i­ty “when you’re on your office com­put­er, you have no pri­va­cy at all,” Lewis Malt­by, pres­i­dent of the Nation­al Workrights Insti­tute, told CNBC. “Any­thing and every­thing you do is prob­a­bly mon­i­tored by your boss.”

Cur­rent laws are vast­ly out­dat­ed, as they are based on the Elec­tron­ic Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Pri­va­cy Act of 1986, when the pri­ma­ry form of elec­tron­ic com­mu­ni­ca­tion was the tele­phone. That was a dis­tant time when desk­top com­put­ers were first becom­ing pop­u­lar, and smart phones were not yet a glint in Steve Jobs’ eye.

And now, in response to the coro­n­avirus out­break, com­pa­nies such as Price­wa­ter­house­C­oop­ers (PwC) and Sales­force have devel­oped intru­sive appli­ca­tions that enable com­pa­nies to con­tin­u­ous­ly track the health sta­tus of their employ­ees. Often they include a sys­tem for track­ing con­tacts between employ­ees with­in an office, and a mobile app for col­lect­ing infor­ma­tion about their health sta­tus. A num­ber of large U.S. employ­ers, includ­ing Ama­zonWal­mart, Home Depot and Star­bucks, are tak­ing the tem­per­a­tures of their employ­ees before they are allowed to work. Cer­tain­ly, employ­ers have a legit­i­mate need to col­lect the nec­es­sary data to safe­guard their work­places, espe­cial­ly in response to a pan­dem­ic. But what is the appro­pri­ate lev­el of “health intru­sion”? How vol­un­tary is the par­tic­i­pa­tion of work­ers, and who gets to decide? 

The real­i­ty of this con­stant Big Broth­er dig­i­tal spy­ing in people’s homes is that dozens of remote work­ers are start­ing to com­plain that they feel burned out by this pres­sure. A recent Fish­bowl sur­vey of major com­pa­nies’ employ­ees found that three-quar­ters of those polled were opposed to using an app or device that allows their com­pa­ny to trace their con­tacts with col­leagues. Yet many fear they will be brand­ed as trou­ble­mak­ers or lose their jobs if they speak out. And since remote work­ers hard­ly see each oth­er—and increas­ing­ly may not even know many of their cowork­ers—these fac­tors will make labor orga­niz­ing and col­lec­tive work­er empow­er­ment increas­ing­ly challenging.

U.S. labor unions have been slow to advo­cate for updat­ing these out­dat­ed laws. One union, the Unit­ed Elec­tri­cal, Radio, and Machine Work­ers of Amer­i­ca, has been work­ing to blunt the worst of the abus­es. Labor-friend­ly media have been miss­ing this sto­ry as well. Not only should unions advo­cate to update the laws and lim­it dig­i­tal spy­ing, but why not also demand that home-based work­ers be com­pen­sat­ed by employ­ers for use of their house, util­i­ties and the inter­net? And that the employ­er remains respon­si­ble to pro­vide equip­ment and a safe work­place, even in the home?

Remote work­force growth—the new normal?

As the num­ber of remote work­ers ris­es, con­cerns are grow­ing among labor advo­cates that this is quick­ly becom­ing the “new nor­mal.” One sur­vey found that 74% of com­pa­nies intend to keep some pro­por­tion of their work­force on a per­ma­nent remote sta­tus, with near­ly a quar­ter of respon­dents say­ing they will move at least 20% of their on-site employ­ees to per­ma­nent remote sta­tus. Google, whose par­ent com­pa­ny is Alpha­bet, recent­ly announced it will keep its 200,000 full-time and con­tract employ­ees home until at least July 2021, and Mark Zucker­berg pre­dicts half of Face­book employ­ees will work from home over the next decade. HUB Inter­na­tion­al, a glob­al insur­ance bro­ker­age, has shift­ed 90% of its 12,000-plus employ­ees to remote sta­tus. Teleper­for­mance, the world’s largest call-cen­ter com­pa­ny, esti­mates that near­ly 155,000 of its employ­ees—almost half its glob­al work­force—will not return to a phys­i­cal work­site. A sur­vey of firms bythe Sur­vey of Busi­ness Uncer­tain­ty found that the share of work­ing days spent at home is expect­ed to increase four­fold from a pre-Covid-19 lev­el of 5 per­cent to 20%. Post-pan­dem­ic, many employ­ees will work from home one to three days a week, and come into the office the rest of the time.

But not all at-home work­ers are cre­at­ed equal. Stan­ford econ­o­mist Nicholas Bloom says “This is gen­er­at­ing a time bomb for inequal­i­ty.” More edu­cat­ed, high­er-earn­ing employ­ees are far more like­ly to work from home, con­tin­u­ing to get paid and advance their careers. But many oth­ers are unable to work from home, often because they lack suit­able space or fast, afford­able inter­net con­nec­tions, and they are being left behind. “They face bleak prospects if their skills and work expe­ri­ence erode dur­ing an extend­ed shut­down and beyond,” says Bloom.

The future of work has become more uncer­tain than ever. In this “brave new world,” labor unions and advo­cates must ensure that the pan­dem­ic is not mis­used by busi­ness­es as an excuse to wors­en con­di­tions for employ­ees who work out of the office. It is easy to imag­ine how the lines between ‘remote’ work and ‘plat­form’ work could blur, lead­ing to more ‘Uber­iza­tion’ as work devolves into ‘inde­pen­dent’ con­tracts, bogus self-employ­ment and ‘pay-by-project’ arrange­ments that can be eas­i­ly out­sourced to remote (and low­er cost) destinations.

Work­er advo­cates must push for a strong and mod­ern legal data pro­tec­tion frame­work. And that should include an effec­tive enforce­ment sys­tem against pri­va­cy abuse that cre­ates a dis­in­cen­tive against ille­gal spy­ing behav­ior. Remote work should not become a down­ward slide toward a Big Broth­er panop­ti­con that pen­e­trates into soci­ety ever more deeply, includ­ing into our homes.

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on September 23, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Steven Hill is the author of Raw Deal: How the “Uber Econ­o­my” and Run­away Cap­i­tal­ism Are Screw­ing Amer­i­can Work­ers and The Start­up Illu­sion: How the Inter­net Econ­o­my Threat­ens Our Wel­fare.


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