Workplace surveillance: should employers be using 'bossware'?
While more than 500 workplace surveillance technologies have been created to monitor workers, Jerry Davis asks if there are other ways to ensure efficiency and compliance
When the pandemic shuttered workplaces around the word and sent millions to work from home, some of us imagined a faint silver lining: at least the boss would not be wandering the floor and looking over our shoulders. Perhaps at home, we could get our work done in peace and on our own schedule. But while many more of us now are able to work in our pyjamas, at least on some days, workplace surveillance has extended its tentacles into our homes, our cars, and our remote workplaces.
Even non-employee contractors are monitored via surveillance tech on their phones and computers or on mandatory microphones, cameras, and bracelets. A recent report by Coworker.org offers a compendium of over 500 new technologies created to monitor labourers and their work.
The rapid spread of “bossware” is once again confirming that dystopian fiction is usually the most accurate predictor of how new technologies from Silicon Valley will be implemented. But it also gives us an opportunity to reimagine how information technologies are implemented “at work”.
Big Brother comes to the office…
Using electronic technologies to monitor workers is nothing new. Financial institutions have long been in the vanguard of surveilling employees and their communications. That makes sense: these companies are subject to stringent compliance regulations and must be hyper-vigilant in protecting their clients from fraud and other financial shenanigans. Much of this technology simply entailed scanning employee emails and other communications for suspicious words and phrases or irregular communications with those outside their departments that might signal something untoward.
Peter Thiel’s data-mining company Palantir was an early contributor. In 2009 JP Morgan Chase engaged Palantir to track internal communications for suspicious activity. According to Bloomberg, the group “vacuumed up emails and browser histories, GPS locations from company-issued smartphones, printer and download activity, and transcripts of digitally recorded phone conversations. Palantir’s software aggregated, searched, sorted, and analysed these records, surfacing keywords and patterns of behaviour that [were] flagged for potential abuse of corporate assets”. Social network analysis allowed the firm to zero in on suspects.
As technology advanced, so did the reach of workplace surveillance methods. The current monitoring technologies at JPMorgan, WADU (Workplace Activity Data Utility), also adds in calendar entries, badge swipes to enter offices, time spent on Zoom and other apps, and more. Employees were not universally delighted by this system. Of course, once such tools are built to monitor communications in an industry with strict compliance standards, they can be adapted and imitated widely.
And what counts as suspicious behaviour will vary by the employer: what looks like a conspiracy to the compliance department at a bank might look like a union-organising effort to a retailer or coffee chain. (Note to HR: under US law, communications around labour organising are protected.)
… and the warehouse, factory, and store
Workplace surveillance is not just for office workers. Amazon warehouses are famous for their productivity tracking applications, which can automate the firing process for labourers who don’t make their quota: According to the technology website The Verge, “Amazon’s system tracks the rates of each individual associate’s productivity … and automatically generates any warnings or terminations regarding quality or productivity without input from supervisors”. This relentless “culture of surveillance” is one of the reasons given for the unionisation push at Amazon warehouses. The tech giant is also seeking to automate other aspects of supervision, for example, through a wristband that guides warehouse packers’ hand movements through vibrations.
Surveilling the remote workforce
The massive impromptu shift to work-from-home created a dilemma for corporate employers accustomed to monitoring and managing labour in person. But surveillance technologies have expanded to meet the moment, turning the world into a panopticon enabled by GPS, cameras, smartphones, and the Internet. Amazon delivery drivers endure AI-enabled cameras that monitor their movements and facial expressions as well as traffic outside the vehicle. “A car cuts me off to move into my lane, and the camera, in this really dystopian dark, robotic voice, shouts at me,” said one driver, quoted by the website Business Insider. Home care workers are tracked by electronic visit verification apps on their mobile phones. The glitch-prone software is charged with regularly shorting the hours of low-paid essential workers as it monitors their movements from client to client.
Many jobs mostly entail staring at a screen and typing on a keyboard or talking to people, either of which can be done from almost anywhere. Surveillance software vendors are rising to the challenge. Contract lawyers scanning documents from home are tracked by AI-based facial recognition software to see if they are paying attention, if an unauthorised person (or cat) has entered the room, or if they might be using their phone to take a picture of what’s onscreen. Any of these events might get them kicked off the system, requiring an elaborate procedure to log in again – or perhaps the loss of employment.
Similar technology is used to monitor students taking college admissions exams from home, where a stray glance or a trip to the restroom may be enough to be ejected from the high-stakes test. Once admitted, there is more of the same: 17 medical students at Dartmouth were accused of cheating on remote exams, evidently because background updates in their college’s learning management system were flagged as unauthorised use of materials. (The charges were dropped.) And colleges’ efforts to track student movements on campus during the pandemic quickly turned Orwellian: one Michigan college sought to require students to tape a “bio-button” to their chest to be sure they were social-distancing appropriately. History shows that once implemented and accepted (more or less), these technologies are not rolled back.
What next for workplace surveillance?
The pandemic uncovered just how much work could be done from remote locations without an in-person boss. Many of us fear that the spread of “algorithmic management” will lead to a large-scale shift to the use of contractors at the expense of employees. Rana Foroohar reported the comment of an American CEO at this year’s Davos meeting: “If you can do it in Tahoe, you can do it in India.” Remote contract workers can have all the paranoid surveillance of an on-site employee with none of the security or protections, spending their off-hours scouting for mouse jigglers and other countermeasures to the corporate Stasi.
But there is an alternative. Research finds that “transparency” that flows in only one direction has many costs, both to the mental health of workers and to workplace innovation. Why don’t we use this tech-driven moment of reckoning to enable open-book management and more democracy at work? After all, the same phone that can be used to track a worker’s every movement can also be used to enable those workers to receive information, engage in reasoned dialogue, and exercise voice. Transparency can flow in both directions. The transaction costs of democracy have declined dramatically – we could be using apps like Loomio to turn workplaces into democracies rather than echoing the authoritarian tendencies spreading through the political world.
Jerry Davis is a Professor of Business Administration and Professor of Sociology at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business.