Source: By Suzanne Burdick, Ph.D.

Employee monitoring software — known as “bossware” — is becoming widespread and problematic for workers, according to The Guardian.

Zoë Corbyn, who specializes in science, technology and research, explained how companies spy on their workers to track productivity — at times without their consent.

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Companies are hard at work expanding and evolving bossware to create continuous monitoring of employees’ digital activities, especially since the number of people working remotely rose during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Bossware can log keystrokes, note websites visited, capture screenshots, record mouse movements, and activate webcams or microphones.

Some monitoring software includes artificial intelligence and algorithm components to evaluate the data collected.

“The rise of monitoring software is one of the untold stories of the COVID pandemic,” Andrew Pakes, deputy general secretary of Prospect Union, a U.K. labor union, told The Guardian.

Prior to the pandemic, remote positions accounted for less than 4% of high-paying jobs in North America. According to Forbes, that figure jumped to over 15% and is anticipated to reach 25% by the end of the year.

A survey last fall of 1,250 American employers with some or all employees working remotely found the use of monitoring software is most prevalent in advertising and marketing (83%), computer and information technology (77%), construction (71%), business and finance (60%), manufacturing (60%) and personal care services (52%).

The survey also found 88% of employers terminated workers after implementing monitoring software. A quarter of employers terminated between one and 10 workers after monitoring their work habits, while 21% terminated between 51 and 100 employees.

‘It is not right, it is not human’

Privacy advocates and workers are concerned that intensified tracking normalizes extreme workplace surveillance and digital supervision.

Employees may not be aware of how much and what kind of data is being tracked.

Remote work advocate and computer programmer David Heinemeier Hansson is vocal in his rejection of bossware.

Hansson is the co-founder of Basecamp, a company that has built project management software for remote work for more than two decades and teaches people “how to do remote work well.”

Early in the pandemic, Hansson announced, “Now that COVID-19 has forced a lot of companies to move to remote work, it’s doubly important that we do our part to help those new to the practice settle in.”

He added:

“We’ve decided it’s our obligation to resist the normalization of employee surveillance software. It is not right, it is not human, and unless we speak up now, we might well contribute to this cancer of mistrust and control spreading even after the COVID-19 crisis is behind us.”

Basecamp is not alone in resisting bossware on ethical grounds.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) is a nonprofit organization that defends digital privacy, free speech and innovation.

According to EFF security researcher Cooper Quintin, bossware companies StaffCop and CleverControl allow employers to secretly activate cameras and microphones on worker devices.

“I don’t think there is any good business reason for that,” Quintin said on the Kim Komando Today podcast. “You can imagine ways in which this could be abused.”

Quintin stressed that employers should use monitoring only when it does not violate workers’ privacy and when they can show it is necessary, specific and proportional to the problem they are trying to solve.

“This ‘digital boss’ standing over your shoulder watching you every minute of every day is not acceptable. It’s not good for employee morale and it’s not good for the employer in the end,” Quintin said.

While proponents of bossware argue that it boosts productivity, Consorte echoed Quintin’s statement noting, “Often when employers see a lift in employee productivity after installing monitoring software, it’s likely due to fear rather than inspiration.”

Constant monitoring is strongly associated with higher stress levels that can result in worker burnout.

How to protect yourself

Little legal protection is now in place against the possible privacy violations bossware poses.

But this may soon change.

As state and national legislatures adopt consumer data privacy laws, citizens can push for laws that establish worker protection.

The EFF outlined four elements as a start for effective legislation:

  • Surveillance of workers — even on employer-owned devices — should be necessary and proportionate.
  • Tools should minimize the information they collect and avoid vacuuming up personal data like private messages and passwords.
  • Workers should have the right to know what exactly their managers are collecting.
  • Workers need a private right of action, so they can sue employers that violate these statutory privacy protections.

The EFF also encourages people to find out if they are being monitored at work and, if they feel comfortable, to talk with their employers about the type and level of monitoring.