As millions of Americans have shifted from working in offices to working from home, more companies have begun using high-tech software to track what those employees are actually doing all day. Scott Thuman looks at the question of what’s fair.
Remember the office?
That uplifting feel of a stand-up desk, the mega-printer and endless supply of paper. Those goosebumps whenever the boss was watching?
It’s been two-years since most American businesses, in the wake of a global pandemic, sent their workers home.
New York skyscrapers, empty. Los Angeles roads, deserted.
Employees plunging into a new norm: work days starting on the couch, continuing in the kitchen, and often ending in the bedroom. And bosses keeping tabs almost every step of the way.
Brian Kropp, Vice President of Research, Gartner: One of the biggest concerns that executives had when the pandemic first started is that we're going to move all of these employees to working from home, and all that's going to happen is that they're going to take naps during the day.
Brian Kropp conducts research on trends in human resources for the consulting company, Gartner.
Scott Thuman: What are you seeing right now that companies are relying on the most to make sure that their employees are working when they're at home?
Brian Kropp: So the most common thing that companies are using right now are different ways just to measure activity. So, when did you log in? When did you log off? But we're seeing other organizations look at things like, who are you emailing? What sort of websites are you going to? And then at the extreme, using your camera on your laptop to track your facial expressions, what you're doing, trying to get feedback from what you're looking at and what your face actually is expressing — if you're frustrated, if you're tired, if you're asleep.
Before the pandemic, Kropp estimates that less than 30 percent of the largest U.S. companies, often referred to as the Fortune 1000, used some sort of tracking technology. Now, Kropp says, that number has jumped to 60 percent.
Scott Thuman: Twice as many companies now are doing whatever they can to make sure their employees, when they're at home, are actually working?
Brian Kropp: So it's not necessarily every employee, but for some segment of their workforce, they're doing it, yeah.
And, increasingly, employees are trying to outwit that technology.
This mouse jiggler went viral on TikTok. Developed by a tech company in Austin, Texas, it sells for less than $30.00, to counter employee monitoring by making it appear you’re busy working. Just as global sales of employee-monitoring technology could reach almost $7 billion by 2028.
Scott Thuman: Even though you may be using your employer's equipment and be on their time, people are going to say, "This is illegal!” Do they have a legal protection in there?
Brian Kropp: Employees, not really. The employer has an access and has a right to all of that information. So all of your emails, all of your instant messages, everything you're sending on Teams or Slack, it's all being warehoused and captured. If your cell phone is provided by your employer, they can actually track where you are.
Albert Fox Cahn: Almost no employees in America today know the full extent of the monitoring they're subjected to.
Albert Fox Cahn is a lawyer, an activist on privacy and technology issues, and founder of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project, also known as STOP. Cahn says laws have failed to keep up with the threat to privacy surveillance tools pose.
Albert Fox Cahn: If you're just checking how many times someone is clicking a key at their keyboard, that doesn't tell you if they're doing a good job. Reducing every aspect of our work life to a set of numbers gives you terrible data and gives you terrible employee satisfaction. And it's really incumbent on the states, and even local governments, to protect workers from these sorts of tools. This is why we call the states "laboratories of democracy," because they are oftentimes the first to try out new legislation.
At least seven states, including New York, have laws governing employee monitoring, ranging from simply informing employees they are subject to surveillance, to banning non-consensual home surveillance and biometrics.
Albert Fox Cahn: Biometric data can be re-sold. That's the information about any part of our body: our face, our iris, our retina, even the way we walk. There are facial recognition vendors that are collecting not millions, but billions of photos of all of us in order to create tracking tools that they can sell to police, sell to corporate customers, and sell to basically anyone willing to pay.
There is a risky downside to the company acting as Big Brother.
Albert Fox Cahn: All of that data is being stored in giant repositories on corporate servers and in the cloud. And all of it is susceptible to hacking, extortion, and all the other harms that come when people can access our information. So when we think about these pools of data, it's not just a gigantic land mine for the employees whose lives are being documented; it's potentially a huge source of liability for the companies that collect it and could lose control of it.
But, in spite of the scary notion of your boss being over your shoulder 24-7, the reality of tracking might be for your own good.
Brian Kropp: Most employers are getting this information to try to help their employees, and their heart, I honestly believe, is in the right place. They're trying to understand who's coming up with the best ideas to appropriately reward them for that. They're trying to figure out, are employees working too many hours and they're getting exhausted and burnt out? And then, if that's the case, are there things that we can do to adjust the number of hours that they're working, or nudge them to take a break? So, the vast, vast majority of companies are using this information to try to help their employees and create a better experience for them, rather than to really spy on them.
Though there can be consequences for companies abusing access. In Illinois, a former Amazon employee sued after claims his biometrics were captured and kept without his consent, in what may be one of the first test cases of Employee vs. Big Brother.
For Full Measure, I’m Scott Thuman.