Protocol | Workplace

Worker surveillance is making employees miserable

What to consider before implementing monitoring tools.

Wall of surveillance cameras

The market for worker surveillance technology is expected to boom in the coming years.

Photo: Lianhao Qu/Unsplash

Last weekend, Ashley Gjøvik walked around her apartment unplugging all of her electronics.

Apple had just fired her for allegedly leaking information, and for months before then, she had spoken out with claims of harassment, intimidation and surveillance at the company. She'd been thinking through Apple's employee privacy policy, which states that workers have no expectation of privacy when using a personal device for Apple business, and wondered if that meant the company could watch her through her home devices, too.

"I think the worst moment was realizing that they were probably watching me through my Eve cameras and listening to me on my HomePod," she told Protocol. "It was this frantic moment. I don't even have words for it yet, of how violating and horrifying and terrifying it was."

Gjøvik said Apple employees don't usually question the fact that their devices are being monitored, because workers have always figured the information collected would be used in good faith. But it wasn't until she began speaking out about the company that she started to realize it could be used against her.

Employees like Gjøvik have been raising concerns around Apple's surveillance capabilities in recent weeks, but security and privacy experts have been warning of the underlying dangers of using this technology for a long time. Experts say companies can now see the real-life toll surveillance technology takes on employees, and its ability to erode trust between managers and their workers.

"You don't even need the technology. What you need to be doing is focusing on what the employee is turning in, what the employee is saying in meetings, what the employee is telling you. I think that is far more important than metrics that most technologies are providing," said Elizabeth Lyons, who studies technology and management at the University of California San Diego.

The impact of worker surveillance

The thing about worker surveillance technology is that even if it's meant to be used for work only, there's always a lingering feeling that managers can find out a lot of personal details, too.

That was the case for Gjøvik, who has tweeted about Apple obtaining personal photos of her. "I feel silly about the fact that I put all this stuff out there and thought, 'It'll be fine.' And now I'm like, 'Oh my god, what did I do?'"

Worker surveillance tools can track keystrokes, mouse movements, which programs are open at a given time, how long someone remains on a website or apps, what someone's talking about online and more.

And Apple certainly isn't the only one possibly surveilling employees. Vice reported last month that Amazon would track the keyboard and mouse movements of its customer service employees in an effort to find people stealing private customer data. Meanwhile, managers can see live videos of Amazon drivers while they're out on the job, and the company tracks the amount of time a warehouse worker takes off during a shift.

An Amazon spokesperson declined to comment on its surveillance technology, adding that maintaining security and privacy of customer and employee data is "among our highest priorities."

Former Amazon worker Ryan Fan said he didn't mind being monitored at work; as long as he was being productive, he knew he wouldn't get in trouble. "If I was on my phone or something, I just wouldn't be on it for a long period of time just in case I was [called out]. But if I got done what I needed to do, I could, as long as I was productive. I wasn't really bothered," he told Protocol.

But other Amazon workers feel otherwise, especially those who were trying to unionize. Last year, the company reportedly bought software to help it track data on unions, and its corporate employees began monitoring hotspots for employee activism. Earlier this month, trade unions in Ireland raised concerns over worker surveillance after Amazon announced plans to open warehouses in the country.

The future of worker surveillance

Worker surveillance technology isn't going away anytime soon; the market for these tools is expected to boom in the next few years, potentially reaching $4.5 billion by 2026. Much of that growth is tied to the COVID-19 pandemic, as companies try to keep watch over employees while remote work continues.

Businesses that provide this technology have a few reasons for doing so. Take Time Doctor as an example: While indicating interest in its monitoring tools, the employer can choose a reason for watching over their workers, including "I don't trust my employees," "I want tools to manage my remote team," "I need to see where my employees spend their time" and "I want to keep my employees accountable."

Alan Brown, a sales manager at Controlio — which provides surveillance tools like time tracking and a livestream of employees' screens — said companies might also monitor employees to increase productivity, prevent intellectual property theft, help managers better understand what employees are working on and determine what kinds of applications are used most often.

Whatever the reason is, experts said companies should still be careful with the tools. Reid Blackman, CEO of ethics consulting firm Virtue, said companies should prepare to answer a load of questions from their employees before they implement surveillance.

"What else is it going to be used for? Who is using those monitoring tools? Who has access to the data that those monitoring tools gather? What's done with it? What's the level of transparency with workers around its use? Does it play any role in evaluations of people's work with regard to firing and promotions and bonuses?"

But even if a company is communicating with workers about the technology, surveillance still changes the power dynamic in the workplace, according to Kathryn Zickuhr, a labor market policy analyst at the Washington Center for Equitable Growth. Even if it's unintentional, monitoring a worker's every move can allow employers to learn about sensitive or personal information like health data, which can in turn create a deeper power imbalance at a company.

"Even if you have transparency and all of this, ultimately they don't have the power to opt out of this," Zickuhr told Protocol. "This really just exacerbates the power imbalances between very large employers and low-wage workers."

Gjøvik, the former Apple employee, said companies need to take the lessons learned at Apple if and when they decide to use their own monitoring tools. She said workers should be able to demand protections over their data and transparency in how their data is being used.

"What are you even up to, and what control do I have over my information? There could be a committee to say, 'Why do you need to access some of this stuff?'" she said.

After this story was published, Apple reached out to Protocol with the following statement:

"We are and have always been deeply committed to creating and maintaining a positive and inclusive workplace. We take all concerns seriously and we thoroughly investigate whenever a concern is raised and, out of respect for the privacy of any individuals involved, we do not discuss specific employee matters."

This story was updated on September 20, 2021.

Photo Illustration: Igor Golovniov/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

On this episode of the Source Code podcast: First, a brief update on the Facebook Files, as more stories start to come out. Then, Owen Thomas joins the show to discuss PayPal's reported interest in acquiring Pinterest, and why that deal might actually make sense for both sides. Janko Roettgers then discusses the good, bad and complicated of Netflix's last few weeks, before Lizzy Lawrence joins the show to talk about the world of productivity influencers.

For more on the topics in this episode:

Keep Reading Show less
David Pierce

David Pierce ( @pierce) is Protocol's editorial director. Prior to joining Protocol, he was a columnist at The Wall Street Journal, a senior writer with Wired, and deputy editor at The Verge. He owns all the phones.

The way we work has fundamentally changed. COVID-19 upended business dealings and office work processes, putting into hyperdrive a move towards digital collaboration platforms that allow teams to streamline processes and communicate from anywhere. According to the International Data Corporation, the revenue for worldwide collaboration applications increased 32.9 percent from 2019 to 2020, reaching $22.6 billion; it's expected to become a $50.7 billion industry by 2025.

"While consumers and early adopter businesses had widely embraced collaborative applications prior to the pandemic, the market saw five years' worth of new users in the first six months of 2020," said Wayne Kurtzman, research director of social and collaboration at IDC. "This has cemented collaboration, at least to some extent, for every business, large and small."

Keep Reading Show less
Kate Silver

Kate Silver is an award-winning reporter and editor with 15-plus years of journalism experience. Based in Chicago, she specializes in feature and business reporting. Kate's reporting has appeared in the Washington Post, The Chicago Tribune, The Atlantic's CityLab, Atlas Obscura, The Telegraph and many other outlets.

Theranos’ investor pitches go on trial

Prosecutors in the Elizabeth Holmes fraud case are now highlighting allegations the company sought to mislead investors.

The fresh details of unproven claims made about the viability of Theranos' blood tests and efforts to conceal errors when demonstrating testing equipment added to the evidence against Holmes, who is accused of fraud in her role leading the company.

Photo: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images

The Theranos trial continued this week with testimony from Daniel Edlin, a former product manager at the blood-testing startup, and Shane Weber, a scientist from Pfizer. Their testimonies appeared to bolster the government's argument that Holmes intentionally defrauded investors and patients.

The fresh details about audacious and unproven claims made about the viability of Theranos' blood tests and efforts to conceal errors when demonstrating testing equipment added to the evidence against Holmes, who is accused of fraud in her role leading the company.

Keep Reading Show less
Aisha Counts

Aisha Counts (@aishacounts) is a reporting fellow at Protocol, based out of Los Angeles. Previously, she worked for Ernst & Young, where she researched and wrote about the future of work, emerging technologies and startups. She is a graduate of the University of Southern California, where she studied business and philosophy. She can be reached at

Protocol | Policy

8 takeaways from states’ new filing against Google

New details have been unsealed in the states' antitrust suit against Google for anticompetitive behavior in the ads market.

Google is facing complaints by government competition enforcers on several fronts.

Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Up to 22%: That's the fee Google charges publishers for sales on its online ad exchanges, according to newly unredacted details in a complaint by several state attorneys general.

The figure is just one of the many details that a court allowed the states to unveil Friday. Many had more or less remained secrets inside Google and the online publishing industry, even through prior legal complaints and eager public interest.

Keep Reading Show less
Ben Brody

Ben Brody (@ BenBrodyDC) is a senior reporter at Protocol focusing on how Congress, courts and agencies affect the online world we live in. He formerly covered tech policy and lobbying (including antitrust, Section 230 and privacy) at Bloomberg News, where he previously reported on the influence industry, government ethics and the 2016 presidential election. Before that, Ben covered business news at CNNMoney and AdAge, and all manner of stories in and around New York. He still loves appearing on the New York news radio he grew up with.

Protocol | Workplace

This tech founder uses a converted Sprinter van as an office on wheels

The CEO of productivity startup Rock likes to work on the road. Here's how he does it — starting with three different WiFi hotspots.

Kenzo Fong, founder and CEO of the 20-person productivity software startup Rock, has been working out of his converted Mercedes-Benz Sprinter van since the pandemic began.

Photo: Kenzo Fong/Rock

Plenty of techies have started companies in garages. Try running a startup from a van.

In San Francisco, one software company founder has been using a converted Mercedes-Benz Sprinter van — picture an Amazon delivery vehicle — as a mobile office.

Keep Reading Show less
Allison Levitsky
Allison Levitsky is a reporter at Protocol covering workplace issues in tech. She previously covered big tech companies and the tech workforce for the Silicon Valley Business Journal. Allison grew up in the Bay Area and graduated from UC Berkeley.
Latest Stories