If You’re a Remote Worker, You’re Going to Be Surveilled. A Lot.

‘It’s a land grab for worker surveillance’

Photo: David Silverman/Getty Images

Just about every office worker who still has a job is now working from home, growing weary of Zoom, and in many cases struggling to juggle childcare with remote meetings and deadlines.

But there’s a deeper worry bubbling under: Working from home — and the hodgepodge of sticky-tape solutions set up in a hurry to try and make working work — could pose a significant privacy risk.

“It’s a land grab for worker surveillance,” says Lilian Edwards, a professor who studies internet law at Newcastle University in the U.K. “It seems to me that we have very, very few safeguards in place.”

Why should remote workers worry about surveillance?

When all communication becomes virtual, there are more opportunities for employers to keep tabs on employees in new ways.

Some financial sector workers, for instance, have been warned their bosses will be logging the websites they visit, noting the keystrokes they make, and even capturing screenshots of their screens as they work from home, reports Bloomberg. A remote working system called Sneek takes photographs of employees through their webcam once every one to five minutes, allowing bosses to see whether employees are paying attention. And until April 2, Zoom — which has seen exponential user growth due to Covid-19 — allowed call hosts to track whether participants were paying attention.

While in an office, there are clear lines between workplaces and break rooms, many remote workers are operating out of their bedrooms. That puts a bulldozer through advice from the Society of Human Resources Management, which says that while U.S. employers are legally able to eavesdrop on conversations in an office, they can’t do it in nonwork locations such as an office cafeteria or a bathroom.

For those who use personal devices for working at home, employer surveillance can particularly easily creep into personal communication.

“Lots of people will be using their [employer’s] copy of Zoom to talk to their grandmother or whatever, as well as for work,” says Edwards. “How far does that allow private life information to be surveilled by your employer?”

What does the law say about employers surveilling their remote workers?

In the U.K., a 2000 law gives employers the right to intercept communications on any telecommunications system they have the right to control, which can include a personal device if it is used for work purposes. The law is routinely cited in cases that cover everything from working in official workplaces, working from home, and incidents where employees have brought their own devices, says Edwards. Similar laws give U.S. employers the ability to monitor communications and technology usage.

But the European Union has some safeguards against unnecessary monitoring of your IT. The General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which governs 28 European countries, protects people from unnecessary data collection. Theoretically, under the GDPR, employers aren’t able to monitor workplace email accounts without actively informing you, as they’d be processing personal data. The basic message, says Edwards? “You don’t give up your rights to privacy just because you’re at work.” If you’re in the United States, she says, you’re out of luck. “In the U.S., as you might expect, they’ve always really taken the view that when you’re at work, you’re the employer’s property.”

One 2018 paper concluded that while there are technically U.S. state and federal protections against employer surveillance, in practice they’re rarely used. “We try to argue there could be [some protection of worker privacy],” says Ifeoma Ajunwa, a professor at Cornell University’s ILR law school and a co-author of the paper, “but the truth is there currently isn’t [any protection]. Really, there isn’t any.”

Why should you care if your boss is spying on you?

Employers often surveil employees to push productivity, and that can create a stressful work environment. American Airlines and Kroger employees, for instance, brought a lawsuit against their bosses for overzealously using productivity monitoring to dock wages. UPS tracks when its drivers click in their seatbelts and start their engines to ensure no second is wasted between deliveries.

There are other reasons employers might surveil workers — office furniture and tech company Steelcase toyed with using face-tracking software to monitor employee reactions to different work tasks — but most of these surveillance methods do not make jobs more pleasant. Increased digital surveillance of employees is connected with a rise in stress levels, according to a 2008 survey by the Policy Studies Institute, a U.K. think tank.

What can you do about it?

“I think we need new laws,” says Ajunwa. She suggests three planks of legislation: a comprehensive omnibus federal information privacy law that would protect everyone’s privacy, whether they are in the workplace or not akin to GDPR; an Employee Privacy Protection Act that would strictly limit any monitoring to actual workplaces and actual work tasks; and an extension of HIPAA for the workplace. “We need to try and work out what the balances ought to be in an era of absolute 24/7 workplace surveillance, which is where we’re heading,” warns Edwards.

Traditionally, surveillance at work has been an issue largely for blue-collar workers, who are tracked and ranked depending on their ability to fulfill orders. Stories abound about Amazon setting unrealistic data-driven targets that don’t allow their staff to go to the bathroom. But the use of tech will make this an issue white-collar workers will also encounter.

“Will white-collar workers get the benefit of the doubt in being surveilled, or will they be getting close to what people in factory work have known for years?” asks Ajunwa.

She reckons it’s the latter. “That’s an interesting phenomenon because for so long white-collar workers have been resistant to unionizing because they feel they are more or less autonomous,” she says. “They see themselves as individual members. But the issue is that with increased surveillance, perhaps their work will be revealed to not be as autonomous as they think.”

But the issue isn’t going to be awareness — as more and more of us get caught up in the work-from-home data dragnet, a head of steam will likely build up against the gap between the rights we need and the rights we have. The problem is going to be getting those laws enacted. “The issue is the collective will to push through those laws, because of a lack of unionization among white-collar workers that make more than industry workers,” says Ajunwa. “There’s not a huge lobby in Congress that’s going to push through laws.”

UK-based freelancer for The Guardian, The Economist, BuzzFeed News, the BBC and more. Tell me your story, or get me to write for you: stokel@gmail.com

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store