As I See It: Home Work
November 1, 2021 Victor Rozek
Data collection and privacy weren’t much of an issue when the Constitution was being debated, which may account for the fact that those words don’t appear anywhere in the document. Probably the greatest threat to privacy at the time was gossip.
At best, privacy is implied in the Bill of Rights. But while the government can’t quarter soldiers in your home willy-nilly, there are plenty of other digital intruders that may be billeting in your residence; tools designed specifically to tread on your privacy. And while social media has long been Hoovering every available scrap of personal data, a subclass of the population is increasingly being targeted for monitoring and data collection: the remote workforce.
As the coronavirus pandemic cycles from one spike to the next, spreading new variants like a homeless dog spreads fleas, employers face a challenge that would have been daunting just a few decades ago: Namely, how do you keep track of what people are doing when they’re doing it from home?
For a variety of reasons, substantial portions of the workforce still prefer home rule when it comes to their workplace venue. Certainly, the risk of infection is one, but the expense and duration of commuting, or the inability to find suitable childcare make the home office a desirable alternative.
Unable to compel sufficient numbers back to the office, employers have taken Ronald Regan’s favorite oxymoronic Russian proverb to heart: Trust but verify. Comrade, since you are working from home, we are giving you a very special gift – monitoring software. Increasingly, people who labor from home do so under a microscope.
Recently, Tatum Hunter wrote a comprehensive piece on the subject for The Washington Post. Of all the worrisome information she imparted, the following was perhaps most troubling:
“Almost all types of employee surveillance are entirely legal,” according to Emory Roane, privacy counsel at the nonprofit organization Privacy Rights Clearinghouse. “In general, you have very, very, very light protections, if any, for employee privacy.” Particularly if the company has your signature on a form that allows the practice on condition of employment.
So, what exactly is management allowed to surveil?
Just about anything you do electronically can be collected and analyzed.
There are several monitoring software applications, and not all perform each of the functions listed below. But the full range of capabilities are available and will likely appear in future releases.
A company-provided computer can provide information from your keyboard: When you log off and on. How long and how often you’re typing. How long it takes you to respond to emails. How much time you spend scrolling through social media, and what you type.
If you’re on a corporate internet connection, they can track the sites you visit and read emails sent from company accounts. Some monitoring software can establish keyword alerts, look for profanities, or criticisms of management or the company. Terminations may result.
Even a personal device, if routed through a company network, will reveal your browser searches.
Collaboration tools like Google Meet, Microsoft Teams, and Slack can be monitored, and so-called private conversations can be retrieved. Monitoring software can also capture video conferences from apps like Zoom.
Data can also be collected from your microphone and speakers, so people in your home close enough to your computer may be inadvertently recorded. Your camera is likewise vulnerable. Some applications will take intermittent photos of you, and intermittent screen shots of your desktop. And should you leave your home, there are smartphone apps that can send location information to the company in real time.
Even people whose jobs don’t require the use of office computers are being monitored. Hunter reports that Amazon “has reportedly deployed tracking technology for both drivers and warehouse workers.” Workers are forced to sign “biometric consent” forms that allow machine learning surveillance cameras to track their every move. Maybe so Bezos can monitor his fleet of trucks and warehouse gnomes from space. Refuse to sign, and you’re free to look for another job.
About 60 percent of large companies currently use surveillance software, but it’s only a matter of time until the practice trickles down. Broadly speaking, we don’t use surveillance technology because we should; we use it because we can. And surveillance power is addictive. We have only to look at China to see where full spectrum surveillance leads.
Of course, it’s all done in the name of productivity, and to ensure employees stay focused. But everything is sold as being well-intended, until it’s not. In the short term, managers will analyze their new mountains of data. Maybe they’ll find the occasional cybersecurity breach, or the theft of sensitive or proprietary information. Maybe they will learn something valuable about their employees.
But more likely, over time, the background threat of constant surveillance will create a docile, obedient, paranoid workforce, creatively stifled, full of suppressed anger and resentment. But perhaps that’s the point.
Hunter quotes Allen Holub, a software consultant, who speaks to the self-defeating nature of employee surveillance. “If you think your employees are going to steal from you, that’s a hiring problem. And if you worry they’re not going to do their jobs, then you’ve failed to create a system that incentivizes them – maybe they’re not paid a fair wage or their contributions at work don’t feel meaningful.”
Americans are leaving jobs in unprecedented numbers. Although the Big Quit has not decimated the technology sector nearly to the degree it clobbered leisure and food services, the drivers of dissatisfaction are universal. Repetitive and unfulfilling work; wage inadequacy; lack of creativity; absence of meaning; inhumane working conditions; prejudice; limited opportunity for advancement. Monitoring does nothing to address these discontents. It simply assumes the worst in human nature, and deploys the latest in spyware, artificial intelligence, and self-learning systems, casting a million dollar net to catch ten dollar fish.
There is perhaps a much less expensive and much more effective approach that would bypass the need for remote worker surveillance altogether. No hardware or software required. No consultants, no advanced analytics. Just take Aretha Franklin’s advice: A little respect goes a long way.