Data Privacy LegislationsRemote Work

Employee Monitoring: Surveillance For The Remote Work Era

For some of us, working from home is a blessing in disguise. We traded the nosy eyes of our coworkers and superiors for the peace and quiet of our home. But what about the organizations that weren’t ready for remote work? What did the pandemic cause in our bosses, accustomed to watch us every day?

Tools for remote employee monitoring and surveillance are on the rise. Every day, large and small companies are trusting tools like Hubstaff, Time Doctor, Activtrak, and Teramind. And these options aren’t your run-of-the-mill option to check on your employees. We’re talking about surveillance that makes you wonder where is the line between productivity and privacy.

In this piece, we will link everything: why so many people have been monitoring employees, how does it work, and how does the current legislation support it. We will also discuss the various alternatives in the market, including ourselves. Yes, we have been used as “tattleware”, too!

The birth of “tattleware”

This trend of work vigilance is not new, and for the most part, not surprising. A Gartner survey conducted in 2018 concluded that more than 50% of corporations were using some sort of “nontraditional monitoring techniques”. The number was expected to be 80% this year, and with good reason.

But surprisingly, “tattleware” isn’t the very first reason behind monitoring. As organizations grew larger, traditional “employee surveys” couldn’t create a holistic view of the workplace. That’s where the first monitoring services came to life, such as social media and sentimental analysis.

Those services paved the way for more tracking. Having full control, the office and its technologies could be used to paint employee’s data with broader strokes. Services like mail scraping and workspace tracking started to gain traction. This is the point in time where services of time tracking and organizational tools were born.

In other workspaces, such as factories, the need for other kinds of monitoring was on the rise too. Just a couple years ago, Amazon filed a patent for “monitoring bracelets”: a wristband that tracks your movements around the warehouse and measures your productivity. It seems pure observation wasn’t enough for bosses.

We discussed recently in an opinion piece about why the workplace is a place of control. As a society, we have always believed that the identity of the office is somewhat sanitized – the direct cause of dressing up for work, for example. There are also several rules in place to maintain the respect for our coworkers, such as not coming late. But the key aspect of control is supervision. We tend to believe we need someone watching us from overhead to be productive, even if several generations of remote workers have proven otherwise.

Nonetheless, this is the year where everything changed. Lockdown came around. Covid-19 changed the way we work and communicate with each other. With no real control anymore, our bosses and administrators had their tranquility shattered when remote work became mandatory. The fear created doubt. Is remote work going to keep my employees productive? What if they just watch Netflix all day, or play videogames? 

Conditions around the house aren’t ideal for employees either. The barrier between work and leisure is sometimes broken when working at home. Kids, pets and household necessities are unavoidable, human activities. For bosses and their vision of productivity and control, they are distractions.

These doubts, amongst other things, created a huge need for remote supervision.

But what about Privacy Rights?

As we stated, the birth of monitoring software as we know it was a gradual process. But in fact, legislation about employee privacy is quite old, even from before the time when computer work became the standard. An example of this is the Electronic Communication Privacy Act from 1986, updated by the USA PATRIOT Act.

The ECPA is a strong precedent for privacy in the United States. Lewis Maltby, president of the National Workrights Institute, had harsher words for it. “When you’re on your office computer, you have no privacy at all”, he declared to CNBC. “Anything and everything you do is probably monitored by your boss.”

Although if you read the ECPA, you would be surprised. The three Titles of the law regulate the interception and disclosure of electronic communication. And as any law, it has several exceptions. The business use exception allows employers to track employees as long as the former has a legitimate reason. There is also the consent exception, where the employers may monitor you if they have your consent.

The most notable exception proves Maltby’s point. This legislation state that if you work on company equipment, such as computers or telephones, your data belongs to the company, not you.

Across the Atlantic, laws tell another story. The General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) adopted in 2016 establishes far more strict rules for privacy. Individual users working in the European Union have full control over where is their data and how it is stored. For example, if a worker marks a document as private, no employer can access it even if it resides on a work computer.

Even if Europe is leaning towards privacy, we know the surge on professional surveillance software is higher than ever. How did they get so good at it to be a business so profitable? 

How does employee monitoring work

The fear in every boss’s mind is easy to describe. I don’t know what my employees are doing in their worktime, so I may spy on them. However, that procedure may be performed in several ways, almost all of them based on information and control.

Time Tracking and Behavior Analysis

Alternatives in the time tracking business were available way before the coronavirus pandemic struck. Almost every tool available in the market uses some form of time tracking: analyzing what you do in your work computer or phone by way of behavior analysis. That usually means tracking what apps you use and what websites you visit, and cross-reference it with the goals of all employees.

Tools like Prodoscore and Time Doctor have an AI-focused approach. They scan every app and browser you’re using, looking for specific usage data. For example, Prodoscore produces a map of all actions performed in the day for every employee, such as “emails sent” or “sales calls completed”.

Some services even have the ability to transcribe your phone conversations, to deeply analyze an employee’s performance on calls from customer support and sales.

Screenshots and Keystrokes

Almost every employee monitoring software has implemented screenshot capabilities. In most cases, the service takes a screenshot from the user’s displays on coordinated time intervals –in their work hours, allegedly– trying to catch employees in the act.

Screenshot tools, while sometimes being an unnecessary invasion of privacy, also work as an employee liability service. Employers insist that screenshots are a useful way for employees to share their work with their superiors in a handy way, usually omitting the fact that accountability can be done without the micromanagement on your personal devices. 

Keystroke and copy/paste operation are the next level in surveillance. Deeply integrated monitoring software such as Teramind can record every pressed key on your keyboard. They can also save and analyze the text contents of your clipboard. Usually, the software has certain place whitelisted: banking sites, personal logins, and for the most part, places that need passwords.

One of the use cases described for these services is accountability. The insight from the software can be useful: employers using ‘unprofessional language’, or easy to guess passwords on company logins. The downside –and this is a huge one– is the absence of almost any trace of personal privacy. Casually chatting with a coworker about why your boss is a jerk? Not anymore, because he will know.

Webcam and always-on hypervigilance

If watching your employees’ screens or reading through their keystrokes isn’t enough, there is one more option: to watch them, literally. Certain monitoring software has the capability of tracking your idle time by watching you, on your laptop’s camera. These employee monitoring tools can cross-reference your computer activity with the movement on your camera to further measure your productivity.

Some services are going the extra mile, and implementing always-on cameras. The service takes a photo every five minutes to ensure you’re sitting by your laptop, and if you’re not there, they’re gonna tell on you. The service works as a “wall-of-faces” of sorts, to achieve the ultimate dream in surveillance: the Panopticon.

Subtle forms of surveillance

Not every type of surveillance has to be a service. Companies that work on software usually have ways to connect between employees, and those services can be used to survey usage and productivity.

Slack, as any other messaging service for employees, is the first one that comes to mind. Messaging services have always had statuses, such as connected/disconnected. Some creative bosses have regulated employees activity with rules about status, and your boss asking you to be connected all day in Slack is one of them.

The same can be said about enforced “remote water-cooling”. Activities that require your presence in-camera are a subtle way of surveillance. Maybe you decided to work someplace else or having that meeting in your bed, early in the morning. Anyone who has worked remotely had this issue: dressing from the waist up or putting on heavy makeup just to be on camera on a mandatory meeting.

A glasshouse: Prey used as a surveillance tool

As a product, Prey hasn’t been far from this trend. We’re not specially designed as a surveillance tool, but the ITs who use –or are contemplating to use– our service think creatively.

A couple of months ago, a prospect –which will remain nameless– contacted us to use Prey as a tool for employee monitoring. A series of Windows 10 laptops were issued to remote workers, and the company was trying to evaluate if those users had a stable internet connection, which is one of the tools of our service.

Apart from our tracking and recovery services, they wanted to ensure their workers weren’t lying to them with excuses such as “sorry, my internet connection isn’t working”. A little far-fetched, but a method of surveillance anyway.

Takeaways

Employee monitoring software can take a lot of forms. From the apparently relaxed ways of remote water-cooling, to full-on surveillance like always-on cameras and keyloggers. We also know that the trend isn’t new, and the coronavirus pandemic –and all the changes that came with it– just pushed it forward.

We also understand that legislation in the US isn’t in the best place right now in regards of employee monitoring and privacy. Any caveat in the legislation is bound to be exploited.

As a society, we have an urge to update and change. We hope the trend of surveillance software can lead to healthier, better ways to manage employees. Work relationships are based on trust and productivity, and –for the most part– the tools described today come to undermine that trust.

As a remote-forward company, Prey has always been on the side of results and trust instead of control and surveillance. We also know that it’s impossible to judge every organization equally. But at least for us, the trust model has worked. We hope it does for you, too.

remote work security
About the author

Norman Gutiérrez

When you stare into the abyss, the abyss stares back at you. Not this one though, it's shy. (စ - စ )