RobotsAtWork
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RobotsAtWork

How our bosses are spying on us during the pandemic

For as long as workers have engaged in wage labor, bosses have been finding new ways to spy on workers. Some bosses have turned to workplace surveillance to thwart union organizing and other acts of resistance. Other bosses simply want to make sure that their underpaid employees aren’t stealing from them. The most invasive and aggressive monitoring has been aimed at keeping workers on task and improving productivity. The COVID-19 pandemic has changed a lot of things about how and where people work, but it hasn’t allowed workers to escape the prying eyes of their supervisors.

At home and under surveillance

The COVID-19 pandemic and lockdowns forced employers to let millions of workers begin working from home. Unable to look out across a crowded office to see who is at their desk and who isn’t employers have turned to new tracking software like Hubstaff, which tracks mouse movements and keystrokes and even allows managers to take periodic screenshots of workers’ computers. Time Doctor, another platform can record an workers’ screens and even periodically snap a picture of a worker using their webcam to make sure they’re sitting at their desks.

“Working from home during the COVID-19 pandemic” by World Bank Photo Collection is licensed with CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/2.0/

If this monitoring is something you think your employer would never do, you’re very lucky. But that doesn’t mean that there isn’t productivity monitoring software on your computer. In October, Microsoft rolled out the new “Productivity Score” feature in an upgrade to its Microsoft 365 office suite, which monitors workers’ use of Microsoft 365 Apps and let managers know how and where they can push workers to work harder.

In the blog post announcing the new feature, Microsoft bragged about how the new tool could help bosses ‘derive more value’ from workers:

“Using the insights Productivity Score provides, we can also help you improve experiences over time by recognizing and proactively addressing issues so you can derive more value from your investment. Productivity Score identifies areas where you can offer people training to learn how to use the tools to their fullest capacity.

After facing significant backlash, Microsoft backtracked and modified the way productivity is reported, only allowing managers to view aggregated data at the organizational level. This was an important victory for privacy advocates, but the fact that this technology was casually rolled into one of the most ubiquitous productivity suites on the market shows just how ubiquitous algorithmic management is becoming.

While videoconferencing software allows workers to join meetings from the privacy of their own homes, the rise in videoconferencing also introduces a whole new set of privacy concerns. In the first months of the pandemic, security flaws and data privacy issues with the popular videoconferencing platform Zoom made headlines and attracted attention of regulators, prompting the company to implement a number of changes including deactivating its attention tracking features and improving login security measures.

But the pandoras box of surveillance that’s opened by bringing cameras and potentially recordings into every single meeting won’t be closed with a simple security patch. Zoom still tracks meeting participation, attendance, and other metrics for account owners (employers) to monitor. And many employers have adopted practices of automatically recording every meeting, allowing managers to go back and view meetings they hand not participated in. For bosses who don’t have the time to watch hours of meeting footage but still want to know what their employees are saying about them when they’re not around, third-party plugins like fireflies.ai and rev.com offer AI-empowered transcriptions that are quickly and easily searchable. Headroom goes a step further, interpreting body language, facial expressions, and other non-verbal cues as well as transcripts to allow managers to analyze workers’ behaviors.

While working from home has introduced a wide range of new developments for white collar workers, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has also introduced a whole range of workplace surveillance in physical workplaces. Check out next week’s edition of Robots@Work for a look at the ways that employers are monitoring essential workers under the guise of ‘COVID safety.’

Spying on you — for your own good

Essential workers who are still reporting for work are also facing new and intrusive workplace surveillance. And often, employers argue it’s for their own good. Today, daily temperature checks have become ubiquitous in many workplaces. While few would argue that basic monitoring during a pandemic is overly intrusive, just a year ago the introduction of temperature monitoring stations would have raised more than a few eyebrows.

The most widespread form of surveillance is employers asking workers to self-report their symptoms. By July of 2020, Axios reported that 60% of employers were collecting self-reported data from employees while another 25% were asking employees to report who they’ve been in contact with, and 5% of employers were going as far as collecting workers’ medical histories.

Employers are also requiring workers to use wearable devices to track their movements to monitor for contacts with potentially infected co-workers. One notable provider is CenTrak, which uses Real-Time Location Systems (RTLS) connected to bracelets, clips, or even stickers, to track workers in the workplace. Amazon is skipping the wearable technology and going straight to using its network of surveillance cameras to monitor employees’ locations and conduct contact tracing.

Monitoring workers for exposure to COVID-19 is, of course, not inherently harmful for workers. In fact, supporting workers in staying healthy and safe at work is a laudable goal. But, without proper worker involvement and regulatory oversight, there’s nothing keeping employers from using the information that they collect to penalize or retaliate against workers. If Amazon is deploying technology that tracks workers when they come within 6 feet of one another there is no reason to believe that they wouldn’t use that to track workers having union organizing conversations in the workplace. And if the CenTrak RTLS technology knows exactly where workers are at all times, that data could quickly be used to track workers who spend a little too long on their meal breaks or away from their work-stations.

After taking a deep dive into the workplace surveillance programs being deployed during the pandemic, the consumer watchdog group Public Citizen developed a set of best practices for employers considering workplace surveillance which provides a strong roadmap for a regulatory agenda on the use of this health monitoring technology. Their top line principles are:

Ask the right questions and gather as much information as you can about the tools you are using to make informed decisions.

Limit data collection to essentials

Ensure cyber security by promoting the use of encryption, pseudonymization and anonymization where appropriate

Be transparent with workers and create formal practices to communicate and answer questions.

Seek informed consent of workers and ensure workers have the right to access, correct and delete their information or withdraw consent at any time.

Restrict the collection of biometric data.

Introduce internal policies and procedures to enforce controls to data and develop confidentiality guidelines.

A Look Back: Pinkertons Still Hard at Work

In 1850 Allan Pinkerton founded the Pinkerton National Detective Agency offering his detectives’ services to railroad owners and other robber barons who wanted to keep a closer eye on their employees and prevent union organizing. Early Pinkertons and other detective agencies worked to infiltrate unions, create blacklists of potential organizers and recruit armed forces to break strikes.

Stories of the Pinkertons litter American labor history. One Pinkerton detective famously infiltrated the Molly Maguires leading to the conviction and hanging of 20 suspected members. Years later, in 1982 Pinkertons led a failed amphibious assault on strikers at Carnegie Steel’s Homestead Mill. In 1921, Pinkertons played a prominent role in the assault of coal miners at the Battle of Blair Mountain (although another firm, the Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency took the lead in that assault).

Today, the Pinkerton Detective Agency is still in business and still spying on workers. In November, Motherboard published dozens of leaked documents from Amazon’s Global Security Operations Center revealing that the ecommerce giant relied on Pinkerton operatives to spy on warehouse workers who were working to form unions.

Speaking to Motherboard about the Pinkerton’s role in Amazon’s surveillance, Christy Hoffman, the general secretary of Uni Global Union said, “for years people have been comparing Big Tech bosses to 19th century robber barons. And now by using the Pinkertons to do his dirty work, [Amazon CEO Jeff] Bezos is making that connection even clearer.”

“History does not always repeat itself, but it often rhymes.” — Mark Twain

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