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.

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