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In 2017, David* found something peculiar mounted under his desk in Barclays’ London headquarters. It was a small, rectangular box. Branded across it was ‘OccupEye’ and the tagline, ‘Automated workspace utilisation analysis’. He’d discovered a heat and motion sensor, silently logging how long he’d been spending at his station.
But it wasn’t just David’s desk that was targeted – the entire office had been fitted with the devices. “My colleagues weren’t really concerned: it was the trading floor; people were generally quite busy,” he recalls. “I don’t think they were really aware of the implications, and how much of an overreach it was by management.”
Barclays claimed to have introduced the sensors to help assess office space usage, not workers’ productivity. “They already had that data,” contends David. “Our cards were scanned in the lobby, and on the floor, so it seemed unnecessary. I got the impression that they wanted to compile the data for something else.”
The device was discreet: were it not for a workmate, David believes he never would have noticed it. However, that was three years ago. The world has changed a lot since then. Now, the sensors have left the deserted offices. Today, they’re invisible: silently ticking along unnoticed in the background, installed on work computers, living in people’s homes.
As working from home has flourished, so too has employee monitoring software. Programs such as Time Doctor, ActivTrak, Teramind and the dystopian-sounding StaffCop have all seen huge upticks in demand. Remote teams are now watched through their webcams via always-on video services like Sneek. In the office-free world, bosses can now clandestinely scan screenshots, login times and keystrokes at will to ensure their workforce is keeping its focus and productivity.
But some remote workers are fighting back against the tide of company scrutiny. “My employer sent me a laptop running with all their corporate spyware on it,” says one Florida-based programmer. “Right next to it is my own computer for all my personal stuff. Can they detect when I haven’t touched the laptop for an hour? Possibly. But I’m not being paid by the hour.”
Methods of avoiding employers’ prying eyes range from the sublime to the ridiculous. With surveillance software hard to evade (employers will likely notice if it’s been switched off), the tech-minded are downloading virtual machines. That means they can ring-fence offending programs – and their work – from the rest of their computer. “If you have a hefty enough PC, you can work in one window and game in another without them ever knowing,” explains the programmer.
Anti-surveillance software is experiencing a boom, too: Presence Scheduler, which can set your Slack status as permanently active, doubled in sales and traffic in the first two months of lockdown – until Slack clamped down and closed the coding loophole. “I believe my site caused the policy changes,” says developer Wesley Henshall. “But there was a further spike in interest once I emailed users that we’d adapted to the changes.”In the current employer-employee game of cat-and-mouse, tracking software chases after nimble-minded workers who seek help on Reddit, flock to ever-evolving anti-surveillance programs and dodge invasive scrutiny. Does it need regulating? “We’re in a live national working experiment,” says Adrian Wakeling of the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service. “We argue that we need a new collective psychological contract between employer and employee that spells out behaviours and values, which are so different now.”
David’s current role is in a similar institution to Barclays. He’s tracked at home. “They set the screensaver timeout to the smallest setting – ten minutes – and make it impossible to change. To see if you’re at your desk, they just have to count your timeouts: clever.” The solution? “I use one of those programs which creates fake mouse movements.” But the monitoring doesn’t end there. “We have an instant messenger that doesn’t work that well and can’t be uninstalled. It feels like it was purpose-made so every communication and email can be instantly monitored. We organise work drinks on it, but you have to assume that everything is being read.”
According to the Information Commissioner’s Office, employers must tell employees if they’re being monitored and why. It’s a more accepted practice in the corporate world: from brokers handling highly sensitive data, to lawyers self-reporting billable hours via time-tracking software. “I’m so used to being watched, I’ve almost forgotten about it,” explains one City trader. “I imagine my logins are recorded on my terminal – I need to be at my desk ready to trade all day. There’s a tacit understanding in finance that everything you do will be tracked.”
However, there’s a limit to how much people will submit to Big Brother’s gaze. In February, when office life still existed, Barclays was forced to scrap new tracking software following a staff backlash. The technology, provided by Sapience, recorded workers’ activity and warned them for spending too long on breaks, rather than being “in the zone”. Meanwhile, PwC has developed facial recognition software that can log employees’ absences from their computer screens – including for bathroom breaks. The accounting firm insists the technology is to meet compliance regulations as the financial world adjusts to home life. “It seems a bit over the top,” says the City trader.
The unease highlights that most employees aren’t necessarily trying to evade scrutiny so they can watch Netflix on company time. When you’re working remotely, it becomes a privacy issue. “Employees generally shouldn’t be subject to surveillance when working from home,” argues Ksenia Bakina, legal officer for Privacy International. “Any monitoring software could be deemed too intrusive if there are other means to achieve the same result.”
Likewise, there’s the problem of employees remaining focused, as they combine a working day with caring for children and shielded relatives in the midst of a deadly pandemic. “It’s a question of trust,” says Wakeling. “An employer has the right to say that work equipment on work hours can’t be used for personal stuff. If they thought that policy was being abused, they can view web traffic and emails. However, you need to think of staff engagement. Maybe, we need to carve out a new understanding for remote working, something that needs to be based on autonomy: how you do your work around other things.”
For David, surveillance on him, his colleagues and his industry is commonplace. “It just goes with the territory. Obedience through paranoia is very common in the banking world. Everyone is acutely aware that every keystroke is recorded, every email pored over.” Until more rules are brought in regarding monitoring technology, expect this long-distant game of cat-and-mouse to continue for a while longer.
*Names have been changed to protect anonymity
Digital Society is a digital magazine exploring how technology is changing society. It’s produced as a publishing partnership with Vontobel, but all content is editorially independent. Visit Vontobel Impact for more stories on how technology is shaping the future of society.
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