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Working from home surveillance arms race

The move to working from home means there’s a boom in employee surveillance software. Bosses can check workers are hard at it, not leaning back for a Netflix binge.

Companies have used technology to snoop on workers for years. It ranges from spy-in-the-cab devices used to measure truck driver movements to key-loggers counting the number of keystrokes a desk bound employee makes every hour.

If you want you can check if an employee takes many tea, toilet or lunch breaks. There are even home detention style ankle bracelets used in warehouses and similar workplaces to track where everyone is.

Counter productive

Keeping close tabs on workers can be counter productive. If the metric is measuring the number of mouse movements per hour, employees will focus on moving mice, not on doing what they are paid to do.

What you measure is what you get.

For many tasks surveillance is plain dumb. It’s easier to measure a worker’s output. That’s what matters.

They earn their pay as long as they add value, serve customers, clear call backlogs or otherwise improve profits. It shouldn’t matter how many key strokes, phone calls or trips around the warehouse floor they make to get there.

Snooping

Now companies use similar employee snooping technology to watch staff working from home. The companies who sell these systems have seen their business grow at a cracking pace.

The names of these products say a lot about the mindset of companies using the technology:

  • Time Doctor,
  • ActivTrak,
  • StaffCop.

That last one is vile.

On top of everyday snooping there are products which let bosses watch what is going on through the webcams on home computers.

One product that does this goes by the name of Sneek….

There’s a naming pattern emerging here, at least the people who make this software are self-aware. You’d have to worry about managers leafing through brochures for products with names like Sneek and StaffCop.

Listening in

Others products let managers listen in on people’s home. There are tools that automate camera watching or listen in case trigger words are used.

And then there is this example from the Wired story

“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.”

Much of this is thought of as normal in the US. The products can be illegal elsewhere in the world. This review of StaffCop in PCMag) evaluates the product without any reference to ethics or morality.

It’s one thing for a company to put this software on computers in its offices, or even on computers that it buys and distributes to staff working from home. Asking people to install the software on their own hardware is another level of evil.

The idea of watching people in their homes using a screen was talked about 70 years ago. That’s when George Orwell wrote 1984. In the book Big Brother has a screen where government spies watch people in their homes all the time.

Orwellian

In other words, it’s no exaggeration to describe these applications as Orwellian. We overuse that term, but it applies here.

Once again we are at a point where 1984 is a training manual, not a warning.

Where they can, workers are fighting back. Wired magazine’s story is about the resistance movement fighting home employee surveillance.

As with the bosses, many of the weapons workers use to counter surveillance are digital. It’s an arms race. A range of new software helps workers get around surveillance. Surveillance software companies respond to block the blockers then the blockers block back.

One trick mentioned in the Wired story, which works if you have a powerful computer, is to use a virtual machine. That is, in effect, a software computer that lives inside of your computer. It can fence off the surveillance software.

There is software to fake mouse movements and software to emulate keyboard use. People even stick tape over webcams or microphones and then claim the hardware isn’t working. The potential to fight back is as unlimited at the potential for snooping.

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18 thoughts on “Working from home surveillance arms race

  1. I used to work at a company who used a product called Desktime, it was pitched as being ‘productively software’, it wasn’t, it tracked everything employees did including the webpages they visited, how long they spent on those pages etc etc. It was foul and breed a culture of as soon as those 8 hours were up, I’m out the door. Fortunately after a while (and after I left) they saw the light and got rid of it. Should not be allowed in NZ.

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