As waves of Covid-19 continue to dictate working (or not working) habits for millions of Americans, employers have been turning to digital surveillance platforms to monitor their at-home workers, according to The Guardian.
David, 23, admits that he felt a twinge of relief when the first wave of Covid-19 shut down his Arlington, Virginia, office. A recent college graduate, he was new to the job and struggled to click with his teammates. Maybe, he thought, this would be a nice break from “the face-to-face stuff”: the office politics and small talk. (His name has been changed for this story.)
“I couldn’t have been more wrong,” David says.
That’s because, within their first week of remote work, David and his team were introduced to a digital surveillance platform called Sneek. -The Guardian
Sneek captures live photos of people every minute or so via their laptop webcams - which are then displayed across a wall of a 'digital conference room' that everyone else on the team can see. If caught not working, other workers can forward the offending photos to bosses via Sneak Slack chat.
"We know lots of people will find it an invasion of privacy, we 100% get that, and it’s not the solution for those folks," said Sneek co-founder Del Currie. "But there’s also lots of teams out there who are good friends and want to stay connected when they’re working together."
David, however, wasn't having it and quit after less than three weeks on the job thanks to the digital nanny.
"I signed up to manage their digital marketing," he said, "not to livestream my living room."
According to the report, such "tattleware" or "bossware" was more or less a niche market pre-covid, however in March 2020 that all changed - as employers scrambled to implement new rules surrounding the work-from-home movement due to the pandemic. Last April, for example, Google searches for "remote monitoring" rose 212% y/y. By April of this year, queries surged another 243%.
One of the major players in the industry, ActivTrak, reports that during March 2020 alone, the firm scaled up from 50 client companies to 800. Over the course of the pandemic, the company has maintained that growth, today boasting 9,000 customers – or, as it claims, more than 250,000 individual users. Time Doctor, Teramind, and Hubstaff – which, together with ActivTrak, make up the bulk of the market – have all seen similar growth from prospective customers.
These software programs give bosses a mix of options for monitoring workers’ online activity and assessing their productivity: from screenshotting employees’ screens to logging their keystrokes and tracking their browsing. But in the fast-growing bossware market, each platform potentially brings something new to the table. There’s FlexiSpy, which offers call-tapping; Spytech, which is known for mobile device access; and NetVizor, which has a remote takeover feature. -The Guardian
Employers aren't just using tattleware either - and have reportedly been using in-house IT departments to also monitor emails for phrases such as "recruiter," or "salary," in order to sniff out who's looking to make a jump to greener pastures (we would note that spying on employees is hardly a recent phenomenon).
In April, 2020, Zoom quickly canned a short-lived "attention tracking" setting which alerted call hosts if a participant was away from the camera for more than 30 seconds. In December, Microsoft anonymized a "productivity score" feature for its 365 suite which rated workers on various metrics - including email use and how long they've been connected to the network. The tool still exists, users are no longer identified by name.
"There’s no real sign of this trend slowing down," says digital researcher and privacy advocate, Juan Carloz, with the University of Melbourne. "No sign of legislative change in any jurisdiction I can name, and no sign of pushback from employees, even when they’re aware of it happening."
Does it work?
UCSD professor of management Elizabeth Lyons says it does.
"A study we conducted found people doing data collection work out of the office were more productive when they were made aware they were being monitored, compared to their colleagues who weren’t told they were being tracked," said Lyons, who noted that remote employees 'appreciate signals that their performance is integral to the organization.'
That said, Lyons admits that employee morale can take a hit if monitoring is too Orwellian.
"In other studies we’ve looked at, the workers were essentially saying, ‘If the manager is going to watch everything I do, then I’m not going to do anything above and beyond what they expect of me'," she said.
Carloz, meanwhile, expressed concern that the tattleware has created an unfair dynamic in favor of the employer.
"Prior to the pandemic, the line between work and play was [clearer] – surveillance, in other words, stopped at the door," he said.
But the rise of tattleware changes the game. If an employee uses a spy-enabled, work-sponsored computer outside of hours, their employer could easily access their personal data, down to internet banking passwords and Facebook messages.
Carloz concedes that most employers are probably not interested in collecting their workers’ personal information. They want to know what websites employees are on, and what tasks they’re dividing their time on, during the workday. However, if a boss does feel like snooping around off-hours, Carloz points out, there are “essentially no legal protections afforded to [those employees] in most western nations”. -Guardian
"But since, rightly or wrongly, [surveillance software] is being framed as a trade-off for remote work, many are all too content to let it slide," he added.