As bosses embrace tech to monitor remote workers, can privacy endure?

June 26, 2020 - 10:31 AM
Woman browsing laptop
A young woman browsing her laptop with a cup of tea. (Pexels/Stock photo)

MILAN/NEW YORK (Thomson Reuters Foundation) — When a client asked Los Angeles-based graphic designer Lea to install software that would count her keystrokes, track the websites she visited and take screenshots to keep tabs on her work, she felt uneasy.

Working from home during the coronavirus pandemic, the freelance designer feared such monitoring of her laptop might let the client access private information including personal emails and passwords, as well as work she had done for other customers.

“It felt like they didn’t trust me; it was hurtful,” said Lea, who soon afterwards cut ties with the client, partly due to the tracking issue.

“It was not an easy decision … they were half of my monthly income,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone, asking not to give her full name.

With millions of people worldwide working from home, the coronavirus pandemic has proved a boon for tracking tools designed to boost worker productivity.

The programme that Lea’s client wanted to use was developed by U.S. company Hubstaff, whose co-founder David Nevogt said requests for trials of its monitoring software have tripled since March. Rival firms report a similar trend.

Consulting firm Global Workplace Analytics forecasts that by 2021 more than a quarter of U.S. workers will work from home multiple days a week.

As legions of newly home-based workers worry about keeping their jobs due to the impact of the pandemic, digital rights campaigners say employers have greater leverage to impose monitoring on reluctant employees.

“It’s increasingly hard to say no,” said Eva Galperin, cyber security director at the California-based Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) group.

“In this economy, what are your other options, when there’s 20% unemployment? It can be very coercive.”

Andrew Pakes, research director at British trade union Prospect, said new monitoring tools were bringing surveillance into white-collar roles and could potentially be extended across the workforce.

“Technology is transforming the level of intrusion and the ability for hyper surveillance,” he said.

‘Problems at the office?’

Hubstaff’s software lets employers choose from a menu of monitoring tools, including tracking workers’ location using GPS and their work pace through mouse and keyboard activity.

The company can also offer tools that record which websites workers visit, how long they spend on a specific project, and take photos of their screen at regular intervals.

Hubstaff’s Nevogt said users are notified when a screenshot is taken and can opt to delete it.

“Everything’s above board,” he said, adding that the firm turns down requests from clients wanting back-end programmes that operate without workers knowing about it.

Some companies, however, promote the possibility of monitoring employees without their knowledge or consent.

Canadian company Deep Software advertises its SoftActivity software, which can record emails and track websites, as the perfect tool to catch time-wasting, rogue employees red-handed.

“Problems at the office? Employees shopping on eBay or wasting time on Facebook? Doing everything but working? Or worse, stealing company intellectual property? You’re putting a stop to it, right now,” the company website reads.

“Remotely monitor employee computers on your network in real time without them knowing.”

Deep Software CEO Yuri Martsinovsky, said, however, that the company encourages clients to notify employees about monitoring.

“In our opinion, personal devices, as well as webcams, should not be monitored, especially at home … Companies should respect employees’ privacy,” he said in emailed comments.

Deep Software said the number of inquiries about SoftActivity rose 70% in April compared with the same month last year.

Career opportunities

Pakes of Prospect said managers have a right to make reasonable requests of workers about their productivity but that the amount of information collected by monitoring software was the main cause of concern.

Screen grabs could capture private conversations, and from the browsing history managers could infer whether an employee was pregnant, had a health condition, or belonged to a union.

“Are career opportunities, promotions, pay and bonuses… to be made by the data that’s collected on people?” Pakes said.

Galperin from the EFF group drew a parallel between employee tracking tools and the emerging market for “stalkerware” – software used to spy on spouses or intimate partners, saying the tools were not always designed with workers’ interests in mind.

She worried in particular about who will have access to the data that is gathered, and for how long it will be used: “How is it begin stored, for how long, and who will be able to see it?”

Martsinovsky of Deep Software said employers who use its software have full discretion over how data is shared: “all data is kept on-premise on our customers’ servers,” he explained, noting that some legal restrictions could apply in certain fields, such as healthcare. Nevogt said Hubstaff encrypted all data, which was stored for up to three years, depending on the type and plan chose by clients.

Access to it was allowed only to “the intended personnel”, the owners of the client company and managers, he said.

‘Proper consent’

Rules about how and to what extent firms can monitor employees vary from country to country, but legal experts say there are few court precedents so far because of the technology’s newness.

In the United States, federal law deals with intercepting electronic communications, and some states have additional legislation in place on employee monitoring tools, said Gary Kibel, a partner at New York law firm Davis & Gilbert.

“But a lot of things can be dealt with by notice to the employee and proper consent,” he said, adding that some states also require employers to tell workers what data they collected and how it was used.

In Europe, stricter data protection laws say that any form of personal data processing needs to be legal, transparent and proportionate, said Sean Illing, a senior associate at British law firm Lewis Silkin.

Employers wanting to snoop on employees’ screens can argue it is in their legitimate interest to ensure workers are being productive and not doing anything they should not be, and set out a privacy notice to meet transparency requirements, he said.

But proving proportionality could be trickier, he added.

“I suspect a tribunal and the regulator, for example the Information Commissioner’s Office in this country, would frown upon that kind of software being imposed by a firm,” he added.

Pakes of Prospect said workers should be consulted before such technology is deployed and informed about its workings.

But he warned that as companies hurry to establish home-working, some might cut corners:

“In the name of public health and flexible working, which are important, we could really be sleepwalking into a new level of surveillance.”

—Reporting by Umberto Bacchi @UmbertoBacchi and Avi Asher-Schapiro @AASchapiro, Editing by Helen Popper.