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Your company could be spying on you: Surveillance software use up over 50% since pandemic started

September 1, 2021, 6:00 PM UTC

As companies continue to delay the return to office because of the Delta variant, more employers are tracking their workers remotely using software—and that includes listening and watching via remote cameras what people do and say inside their private homes.

The use of employee surveillance software jumped 50% last year during lockdown and has continued to grow since March of this year, according to research by Top10VPN, a virtual private network review site. Some of the software sold allows managers to secretly spy on employees, including turning on remote cameras and microphones as well as monitoring keystrokes.

Of course, surveillance at work isn’t new. Companies have long used surveillance cameras to monitor employees at restaurants and retail stores to ensure workers weren’t stealing, taking unnecessary breaks, or treating customers poorly. Amazon built its own technology to monitor the hours its truck drivers spend transporting freight and to potentially catch safety violations—such as tailgating or distracted driving. 

Most office workers are aware that their employer can gain access to the Slack messages, emails, and websites they visit on their company computer. But more extensive tracking of workers inside their own homes is relatively new, and it creates a new level of concern for workers’ privacy, said Calli Schroeder, global privacy counsel at the Electronic Privacy Information Center, or EPIC. “Sometimes people are aware, but sometimes the tools are extremely hidden,” she said.

Software such as StaffCop and Clever Control, for instance, allow remote control of webcams and microphones, enabling surveillance around homes and people’s private lives. Others measure keystrokes, capture passwords typed into websites and programs, monitor private messages on social media chat, or take random screenshots of the desktop to ensure a person isn’t watching Netflix all day.  One application, NetVizor, claims it operates “entirely in stealth, invisible to the consumer.”

Sales have tripled over the past year at one such software surveillance company, Controlio, based in New York. Nick Jenkins, the company’s product manager, said the company’s thousands of customers include small and large businesses, such as IT companies, financial services firms, call centers, and consulting firms. The U.S. has proven to be Controlio’s biggest market, where many states allow for such monitoring. “It’s not as risky in the U.S.,” Jenkins said.

Employees in the United States have fewer privacy protections than those in Europe, which require employers to get worker consent before doing any monitoring and would need a legal basis under the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). That might require weighing the surveillance against the employee’s rights and could be very tricky to establish, said Schroeder, EPIC’s counsel, who monitors such laws.

There is still a lot of leeway in the United States when it comes to employer-employee relationships. It can vary widely by state or industry, opening up ways that employees can be left without full protections, said Schroeder. The legality becomes more complex when monitoring is extended to private spaces at home. For example, video or audio recordings made without the employee’s knowledge—or without the knowledge of those nonemployees picked up within the home workspace—may run into problems with two-party consent states, depending on the circumstances, said Schroeder. “They are basically pushing into an area full of gray and at times uncharted legal questions,” she said. 

A good chunk of the legality of surveillance is going to be tied to whether employees are aware of the surveillance, including how and whether that data is maintained, for how long, the security of that data, and whether it’s shared with other parties or companies, she said. EPIC has proposed actions to state and federal lawmakers to provide more privacy protections for U.S. employees, but Congress has been slow to act.

Jenkins of Controlio acknowledges that there are privacy concerns among U.S. workers but said that not every employer uses all of the software’s capabilities, such as keystroke monitoring or screenshots of email. “We understand that this solution isn’t designed for every company,” Jenkins said. “But we have no employee complaints. I use it myself.”

With limited legal privacy protections, some workers are fighting back in their own ways. A new study by research firm Gartner found that people are twice as likely to pretend to be working when employers use tracking systems to monitor their output. Employees have also taken to Reddit to discuss how and if they can block employer surveillance, and they’ve swapped tips on chats, online, and in person about how to block or thwart employer surveillance. Some have also pushed back with unions, while others have refused to install required software or simply cover webcams, said Schroeder. With a tight job market, workers have more leverage.

“I would imagine that many have threatened to quit or actually quit over invasive surveillance,” she said. “That pushback may be enough to get an employer to cave.”

In February, Microsoft introduced its own workplace analytics tool called Viva that’s part of its Microsoft 365 cloud software for businesses. But unlike other tracking tools, Viva is designed with privacy in mind, said Kamal Janardhan, Microsoft’s general manager of Viva Insights.

Individual worker data on productivity is provided only to that worker—rather than to her boss. Managers may receive general productivity scores for their entire team, but it’s a tool for people to see how they work and improve their work/life balance and their performance.

“It’s like a Fitbit or iPhone where you can make changes in your behavior,” Janardhan said. “We’ll never show an insight unless it’s part of a larger statistical noise.”

For instance, the software will identify who on your team you converse with the most and who you need to connect with more often. It identifies when the best time of day would be to book a meeting, based on your rising and falling energy and when you might schedule flow time. It also keeps tabs on mental health, noting if you’re scheduling too many back-to-back meetings or suggesting a “virtual commute,” or a 10-minute meditation to decompress from work to the dinner table, scheduling no-meeting days or focus-only days. It alerts you, too, about how your work impacts others. So if you send an email at 9 p.m., does your team feel triggered to respond then? If so, you can delay your delivery to the next morning. 

Janardhan said Microsoft created the tool based on its behavioral research that showed that when people see for themselves how they spend their time and how they work, it actually elicits positive behavior and a desire to improve—more so than if a boss watched and took a punitive approach. Janardhan said the insights showed her that her own team worked an average of eight extra hours a week during the pandemic, because there was no boundary between work and home. The analytics helped them adjust their work/life balance. “You’ve got to make it a conversation on employee well-being, because it’s the way you need to work to be competitive.”

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