Employer surveillance: how far will it go?


It’s not just our smartphones that are constantly listening to us and watching our every move. Our employers are doing it too.

Workplace surveillance has long since gone beyond the old-school CCTV camera perched in the corner of the office car park. If you work for a large company, chances are your employer knows much more about you than you think, from where you eat lunch to the inside jokes you make with your co-worker on the company Slack channel (quick, delete all those pictures of your adorable dog*).

Being monitored and having personal data shared with third parties will strike varying levels of fear into people. Take the recent FaceApp scandal as an example of that.

When it became more widely known that a Russian-based company owned the platform, fears that data would be scraped from our phones and used in malicious forms prompted a viral warning that was just as popular as the app itself (US Senator Chuck Schumer even called for an FBI investigation). 

But others were more ambivalent. Their response was more, “So what? We already give up this data by having a Facebook, Twitter or Instagram account. If someone wants to use a hilarious aged-image of my face as part of their propaganda agenda, so be it. No skin off my teeth.”

The widely varying responses could be due to a variety of factors: an age difference, a lack of education around the dangers of privacy breaches, differing feelings about social media, and the sensitivity of information that you have to protect. 

Much like the public have differing views on data sharing, so do employers and employees in the workplace. Why’s that? Because they’re not just monitoring our phone calls for quality assurance anymore. 

Big brother is always watching

It wouldn’t surprise many people that employers have the right to access work emails/text messages as they please but it may be a surprise to hear that some organisations are collecting data on the tone of your voice on office phone calls.

In an article for the Wall Street Journal, author Sarah Krouse writes,“In some cases, tonal analysis can help diagnose culture issues [in] a team, showing who dominates conversations, who demurs and who resists efforts to engage in emotional discussions.”

Krouse cites the example of one company that used this method to monitor the behaviour of recently hired managers. It collected metrics on the frequency and volume of their speech, and how often they spoke over others. This particular exercise was done with the consent of the participants and at the end they were provided with advice on how they could improve.

Other examples of new ways in which employers can monitor their staff include helmets that are used to monitor employee’s stress or fatigue levels, and devices that measure brain waves to determine how long an employee’s break from work should be.

Krouse refers to a company named Teramind which provides software for employers to take a look at employee’s computer screens live. The data collected includes: keystrokes, web content that is being perused and recordings of screen activity or actual footage of the employee at their screen. This technology is often used to monitor employees who are working remotely.

The purpose is to provide a snapshot of ‘unproductive’ and ‘productive’ staff. You can only imagine the kind of stress this would put employees under. What if your boss was looking at your screen as you read this sentence?

Employee sentiment

If data collection is happening for the benefit of the worker, does that change employee sentiment? And what does data collection for the good of the employee look like? 

According to research from UK global cyber security company Gurucul, 62 per cent of employees would happily take a job with a company that was known to actively monitor its staff. 

The company says trawling through employee data is “less about snooping on people’s internet browser history and more about detecting potential threats to an organisation”.

“The Insider threat is a serious problem for organisations,” says Saryu Nayyar, CEO of Gurucul. “Insiders know where sensitive company data is, who has access to it and, therefore, know exactly where to strike if they decide to take action. The fact that so many [people] are not put off by the prospect of being monitored is great news.”

Data collection might not always be for reasons as serious as protecting an organisation against insider threats. More often than not, employers say they’re using this data to make their businesses more efficient.

The WSJ points to companies like Macy’s, which collects data on how many emails employees send out of hours in an effort to improve work/life balance, and Indian-based company Ramco Systems, which uses email surveillance data as a means to quickly pass on strong client relationships between an outgoing and incoming staff member.

“The firm doesn’t look at the content of emails or chats, but it can still highlight an organization’s internal influencers by identifying those whose messages get quick responses and who have strong, ongoing relationships with peers throughout the company,” says Krouse. 

Microsoft is another company that gathers data on how its employees spend their time at work, but the tech-giant doesn’t just use this data to keep an eye on employees (although you can be sure that’s part of the reason) it also relays the information back to staff in a personalised dashboard.

The idea is that it allows the employee to reconsider how they’re spending their time. For example, is time spent answering emails overshadowing important brainstorm sessions?

Much like many smartphones now provide a daily breakdown of usage data, this form of data-crunching is designed to empower the individual to make better choices for their productivity, mental health and more.

But what happens when these choices are being made for us? 

Lack of transparency

If your employer, without your consent, collected data on your street, house and backyard, but never peered inside your home, would you be annoyed? Of course you would. But one employer in the US believes if it isn’t getting too granular with data, it doesn’t have to disclose it’s snooping tendencies.

Krouse reports that in a bid to get a better understanding of its turnover rate, US pharmaceutical company McKesson analysed over 130 million emails from 20,000 employees. They tracked senders, recipients and time of send – but not the content of the email.

This data recording was not disclosed to employees at the time because the company felt that, as it wasn’t reading the contents of the messages, it wasn’t breaching employee privacy. 

This is a risky move post Cambridge Analytica and other high-profile data breach scandals. While a small handful of people are overly keen to embrace this new form of data tracking (with some hosting ‘chip parties’ as members of the office get microchipped together), society in general is seeking more transparency around data collection from big companies than ever before. 

Hard to say no, but not impossible

Ben Waber, a scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, told the WSJ, “Your employer controls your livelihood and if they say ‘give me this data’, it’s very hard to say no.”

That’s true. As our workplaces move into the future and new technologies and monitoring practices are adapted, it will be very hard for employees to avoid the new way of doing things. And it won’t just apply to company owned property – such as work computers and phones – but to personal data.

The kids of tomorrow might consider us dinosaurs for not agreeing to have our retina scanned or saliva tested as we come into work every morning (in the same way some of us roll our eyes when our Dads ask us, for the millionth time, how to send a private message on Facebook), but a recent case that HRM previously wrote about, shows that it’s not impossible for employees to push back. 

An Australian employee of a sawmill company refused to give his fingerprint data to his employer and was subsequently dismissed. The employee won is unfair dismissal case on appeal, the first decision of its kind in Australia.

While this win was momentous, we should remember there are hundreds of examples of employees who unknowingly share their private data. Perhaps where will be a point where we’ll no longer be able to say “hands off my data!”, as sharing these details could soon be part and parcel of being employed. Actually, it kind of already is.

*Don’t delete pictures of your dog, that might be the best part of your day. It doesn’t matter if you do, anyway. Your employer can still upgrade to a paid plan which means they can keep a log of everything, even content that has been deleted or edited.

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Employer surveillance: how far will it go?


It’s not just our smartphones that are constantly listening to us and watching our every move. Our employers are doing it too.

Workplace surveillance has long since gone beyond the old-school CCTV camera perched in the corner of the office car park. If you work for a large company, chances are your employer knows much more about you than you think, from where you eat lunch to the inside jokes you make with your co-worker on the company Slack channel (quick, delete all those pictures of your adorable dog*).

Being monitored and having personal data shared with third parties will strike varying levels of fear into people. Take the recent FaceApp scandal as an example of that.

When it became more widely known that a Russian-based company owned the platform, fears that data would be scraped from our phones and used in malicious forms prompted a viral warning that was just as popular as the app itself (US Senator Chuck Schumer even called for an FBI investigation). 

But others were more ambivalent. Their response was more, “So what? We already give up this data by having a Facebook, Twitter or Instagram account. If someone wants to use a hilarious aged-image of my face as part of their propaganda agenda, so be it. No skin off my teeth.”

The widely varying responses could be due to a variety of factors: an age difference, a lack of education around the dangers of privacy breaches, differing feelings about social media, and the sensitivity of information that you have to protect. 

Much like the public have differing views on data sharing, so do employers and employees in the workplace. Why’s that? Because they’re not just monitoring our phone calls for quality assurance anymore. 

Big brother is always watching

It wouldn’t surprise many people that employers have the right to access work emails/text messages as they please but it may be a surprise to hear that some organisations are collecting data on the tone of your voice on office phone calls.

In an article for the Wall Street Journal, author Sarah Krouse writes,“In some cases, tonal analysis can help diagnose culture issues [in] a team, showing who dominates conversations, who demurs and who resists efforts to engage in emotional discussions.”

Krouse cites the example of one company that used this method to monitor the behaviour of recently hired managers. It collected metrics on the frequency and volume of their speech, and how often they spoke over others. This particular exercise was done with the consent of the participants and at the end they were provided with advice on how they could improve.

Other examples of new ways in which employers can monitor their staff include helmets that are used to monitor employee’s stress or fatigue levels, and devices that measure brain waves to determine how long an employee’s break from work should be.

Krouse refers to a company named Teramind which provides software for employers to take a look at employee’s computer screens live. The data collected includes: keystrokes, web content that is being perused and recordings of screen activity or actual footage of the employee at their screen. This technology is often used to monitor employees who are working remotely.

The purpose is to provide a snapshot of ‘unproductive’ and ‘productive’ staff. You can only imagine the kind of stress this would put employees under. What if your boss was looking at your screen as you read this sentence?

Employee sentiment

If data collection is happening for the benefit of the worker, does that change employee sentiment? And what does data collection for the good of the employee look like? 

According to research from UK global cyber security company Gurucul, 62 per cent of employees would happily take a job with a company that was known to actively monitor its staff. 

The company says trawling through employee data is “less about snooping on people’s internet browser history and more about detecting potential threats to an organisation”.

“The Insider threat is a serious problem for organisations,” says Saryu Nayyar, CEO of Gurucul. “Insiders know where sensitive company data is, who has access to it and, therefore, know exactly where to strike if they decide to take action. The fact that so many [people] are not put off by the prospect of being monitored is great news.”

Data collection might not always be for reasons as serious as protecting an organisation against insider threats. More often than not, employers say they’re using this data to make their businesses more efficient.

The WSJ points to companies like Macy’s, which collects data on how many emails employees send out of hours in an effort to improve work/life balance, and Indian-based company Ramco Systems, which uses email surveillance data as a means to quickly pass on strong client relationships between an outgoing and incoming staff member.

“The firm doesn’t look at the content of emails or chats, but it can still highlight an organization’s internal influencers by identifying those whose messages get quick responses and who have strong, ongoing relationships with peers throughout the company,” says Krouse. 

Microsoft is another company that gathers data on how its employees spend their time at work, but the tech-giant doesn’t just use this data to keep an eye on employees (although you can be sure that’s part of the reason) it also relays the information back to staff in a personalised dashboard.

The idea is that it allows the employee to reconsider how they’re spending their time. For example, is time spent answering emails overshadowing important brainstorm sessions?

Much like many smartphones now provide a daily breakdown of usage data, this form of data-crunching is designed to empower the individual to make better choices for their productivity, mental health and more.

But what happens when these choices are being made for us? 

Lack of transparency

If your employer, without your consent, collected data on your street, house and backyard, but never peered inside your home, would you be annoyed? Of course you would. But one employer in the US believes if it isn’t getting too granular with data, it doesn’t have to disclose it’s snooping tendencies.

Krouse reports that in a bid to get a better understanding of its turnover rate, US pharmaceutical company McKesson analysed over 130 million emails from 20,000 employees. They tracked senders, recipients and time of send – but not the content of the email.

This data recording was not disclosed to employees at the time because the company felt that, as it wasn’t reading the contents of the messages, it wasn’t breaching employee privacy. 

This is a risky move post Cambridge Analytica and other high-profile data breach scandals. While a small handful of people are overly keen to embrace this new form of data tracking (with some hosting ‘chip parties’ as members of the office get microchipped together), society in general is seeking more transparency around data collection from big companies than ever before. 

Hard to say no, but not impossible

Ben Waber, a scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, told the WSJ, “Your employer controls your livelihood and if they say ‘give me this data’, it’s very hard to say no.”

That’s true. As our workplaces move into the future and new technologies and monitoring practices are adapted, it will be very hard for employees to avoid the new way of doing things. And it won’t just apply to company owned property – such as work computers and phones – but to personal data.

The kids of tomorrow might consider us dinosaurs for not agreeing to have our retina scanned or saliva tested as we come into work every morning (in the same way some of us roll our eyes when our Dads ask us, for the millionth time, how to send a private message on Facebook), but a recent case that HRM previously wrote about, shows that it’s not impossible for employees to push back. 

An Australian employee of a sawmill company refused to give his fingerprint data to his employer and was subsequently dismissed. The employee won is unfair dismissal case on appeal, the first decision of its kind in Australia.

While this win was momentous, we should remember there are hundreds of examples of employees who unknowingly share their private data. Perhaps where will be a point where we’ll no longer be able to say “hands off my data!”, as sharing these details could soon be part and parcel of being employed. Actually, it kind of already is.

*Don’t delete pictures of your dog, that might be the best part of your day. It doesn’t matter if you do, anyway. Your employer can still upgrade to a paid plan which means they can keep a log of everything, even content that has been deleted or edited.

Leave a reply

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