Workers are surveilled through apps but things may get worse if companies use AI

Companies are using greater and more intrusive technology to follow employees’ whereabouts, read their documents, listen in on meetings, and even watch and listen to employees’ work.

According to Wired, while companies like Amazon have used this type of technology to monitor warehouse personnel and, supposedly, foresee when workers are considering unionizing, it is now making its way into what were formerly office occupations. Software used to monitor employees, such as Veriato and CleverControl, logs numerous “productivity”-related factors. These solutions offer companies an opportunity to have more control over a distributed workforce. Nevertheless, privacy advocates claim that merging an expanding amount of worker data with AI’s predictive capabilities will only lead to tragedy.

“The spying-on of workers in Amazon warehouses is at the extreme end, with employees controlled to the point of when they use the toilet or have a break—which was unthinkable a few years ago”, says Diego Naranjo, head of policy at the international advocacy group European Digital Rights. “Paranoia and lack of trust in the workforce from upper management have seemingly worsened, and it’s trickled down to remote office work now—but also the price of software has gone down and availability has gone up, so controlling workers in this way has become easier”.

The equipment used to keep tabs on employees—often referred to as “bossware”—is growing more sophisticated. In order to determine what kind of data is collected and how the UK-based online resume builder StandoutCV examined 50 of the most popular and well-known employee monitoring programs in June. A quarter of tools have more intrusive features now than they did in 2021, the year it previously conducted the research. There has been a sharp increase in the tools available for location tracking (up by 45%), video/camera monitoring (up by 42%), document scanning (up by 26%), and attendance tracking (increased by 20%).

Teramind, a “user behavior analytics platform” with headquarters in Miami, was found by StandOutCV to have the most unsettling and intrusive selection features. Teramind gives access to 5,000 employers in 12 countries detailed information on the websites, apps, and files used as well as the ability to view emails and instant messages that were sent. Isaac Kohen, the creator, and CTO, stated in 2018 that this technology enables employers to “excruciating detail” watch or listen in on their employees’ video or phone interactions, both at work and at home. While claiming to track GPS location, Veriato does not monitor audio but does have similar features. While other technologies track location or document scanning, CleverControl tracks a wide spectrum of employee behavior.

When asked for feedback, Kohen stated that Teramind neither has nor desires to have access to webcams.

“One of the most prevalent modes is real-time monitoring—90 percent of these tools can track activity real-time, so an employer can get a list of everything you’ve done that day—which files you’ve opened up, messaging platforms you’ve used and sites you’ve visited”, says Andrew Fennell, a former recruiter, and director at StandOut CV, the organization which commissioned the research.

In 2021, the UK Trades Union Congress found that 60% of workers in Wales and England believed they had been subject to some form of surveillance and monitoring at their current or most recent job, with the monitoring of staff devices and phone calls becoming more common. This suggests that some employees are aware that they are being tracked. Data acquired by the software marketplace Capterra in 2022 revealed that three out of ten UK employees claimed their organization utilizes monitoring technologies.

However, some workers simulate movement using low-tech methods like taping a mouse to a fan, or they can choose from a wide variety of mouse jugglers (a device that simulates the movement of the mouse) that can be bought from conventional stores. Almost a thousand variations are available on Amazon, from plug-and-play USBs to mice with surfaces that simulate human motion. Most employees are unaware that they are being monitored, and few employers voluntarily disclose the practice out of concern for their employees’ morale and to avoid facing privacy litigation.

For both workers and companies, the adoption of wearables and biometric data adds complexity. To collect more individual biometric and health data, such as information on sleep, mobility, fitness, and stress levels, companies frequently work with tech suppliers and wellness programs. Research suggests that more employees are choosing to participate.

In a PwC survey conducted in 2021, 44% of participants answered that they would be open to using wearables and sensors to monitor productivity in ways that their employers could access. In comparison, only 31% of respondents in the 2014 survey indicated they would be open to such access. The enterprise wearables market is estimated to reach $32.4 million by the end of the year; it is a booming sector of the economy.

“The problem is the aggregation of data that companies already have, plus all the functionalities they can add”, says Naranjo. “If we allow that in the remote workplace, plus biometric mass surveillance, which is already happening in many organizations, it gives companies more and more power”. The EDR is urging the outlawing of widespread biometric surveillance in areas that are open to the public, including the workplace.

What does the workforce actually gain from the increasing sophistication of employee monitoring systems?

It poses a danger to job security on the most fundamental level. In a survey of 1,250 US companies, review site found that 60% of those who had remote workers used some kind of work monitoring software, with the most popular types being those that tracked online browsing and application use. And 88% of them admitted to firing employees after installing surveillance software.

However, the situation gets worse when AI is included. Wilneida Negrón, director of policy and research at Coworker, stated during a recent panel discussion on bossware organized by Stanford Social Innovation Review, “The mass collection of data on workers, with the use of predictive functions, is leading to a lot of risk scoring of workers, particularly in finance, pharmaceutical, manufacturing, and health”. “Behavioral analysis is being collected and used to rank workers in everything from the potential they might unionize to the chance they might hack the IT systems”.

For instance, the HR analytics tool Perceptyx analyzes a number of factors to calculate a vulnerability score for the possibility that a worker may leave the company or join a union.

Bossware’s ethics and reliability are questionable, and in terms of openness, companies have very little to disclose when it comes to mass data collecting or software that contains predictive aspects. According to UK law, employee monitoring must be transparent, which means that each employee must be informed whether they will be using a technology that can be watched or monitored in some way, according to Fennell. According to Capterra, 24% of UK workers who were being watched had not been made aware of their rights or the use of employee monitoring software.

General Data Protection Regulation, which governs data protection in the EU, allows for workplace surveillance under certain conditions. Thankfully, more authorities are coming up to offer bossware recommendations. Employer guidelines on data privacy in the workplace were published by the Data Protection Commission, an Irish regulatory body. It was agreed that companies may decide to keep an eye on how their employees use the internet, email, and telephone since “organizations have a legitimate interest in protecting their business, reputation, resources, and equipment”

Nonetheless, it emphasized that “the collection, use, or storage of information about workers involves the processing of personal data and, as such, data protection law applies”. It also stressed how people have a right to privacy at work under the European Convention on Human Rights.

Recommendations and advice are great, but as tools improve, stronger rules that go beyond GDPR, a law put in place when bossware was still in its infancy—are needed to counteract the rise of workplace surveillance technology and management by algorithms. Employee surveillance will undoubtedly become more prevalent in remote workplaces until surveillance regulations are updated for the digital age. Gartner predicts that by 2025, 70% of major employers will be monitoring their workers, up from the 60 percent of businesses that will be doing so in 2021.

According to Mark Johnson, advocacy manager at the British civil liberties and privacy campaigning group Big Brother Watch, “in order to protect people’s sense of autonomy, their dignity and mental well-being, it’s vital that the home remains a private space and employers don’t go down the dystopian and paranoid route of constantly monitoring their employees”.

Excessive monitoring of workers by companies will only push them more and more toward a robotic way of working until the requirements are so excessive and unsustainable that they will have to replace workers directly with robots and artificial intelligence systems. It is surprising, however, when it is the workers themselves who voluntarily give these possibilities to companies. Anyway, it is clear that companies have less and less trust in employees, assuming they still care to have any but are increasingly focused on squeezing the worker with the threat of dismissal; an action that, if not taken promptly, will happen anyway because of the unsustainability of the work. In addition to this, there’s the privacy issue that will eventually make every job untenable as the amount of data collected will most likely be used to train AI to create increasingly unattainable yardsticks.