Controversy over work from home tech


Looking to avoid freeway congestion, save on gas costs and work from home? Those are some of the bonuses of telecommuting, but it's not always as private as it used to be.

"They want a way to be able to tell that I'm actually doing what I say I'm doing," Lisa Newton, oDesk freelance worker.

Lisa Newton does freelance data research from the privacy of her Belmont home, but she knows her client can watch what she's doing at any time.

Newton works through a Menlo Park-based, online-services marketplace called oDesk - which for a fee, connects businesses with nearly 100,000 job seekers who can provide their services via a computer.

"For a startup in the Bay Area, hiring an engineering team can be cost-prohibitive, and what oDesk does is enable you to choose from a global talent pool," said Gary Swart, oDesk CEO.

oDesk also offers what some critics call a 21st century Big Brotherism. It has built electronic monitoring into its software so employers can review a freelancer's work.

Here's how it happens - once remotely logging on to work through oDesk - the software periodically captures shots of the computer screen, plus it keeps an ongoing record of keystrokes and mouse clicks, even snaps optional webcam photos of the freelancer at work.

oDesk CEO Gary Swart says their service providers actually like it.

"They don't have to justify their existence, right. They don't have to come back and debate with their client that it really did take them six hours to debug your code or to research the story or to do the work, because they have proof of the work," said Swart.

oDesk says its electronic monitoring builds trust and high productivity. It insists it's not spying because the freelancers consent to the monitoring when they sign up. They can even delete screenshots, but then wouldn't get paid for that work time. One competitor thinks oDesk's work model is too invasive:

"Our model is about the results," said Fabio Rosati, Elance CEO.

Elance, a Mountain View-based company, is the largest online marketplace for the cyber-workforce and posts about 20,000 new jobs a month. While its freelancers also use a monitoring system to track their work, Elance doesn't grab screenshots or snap webcam photos.

"For me to have the best engineers, the best designers, the best writers, I need to have an environment that makes it comfortable for them and fits their needs, and I need to put emphasis on one thing, which is results," said Rosati, Elance CEO.

An employment lawyer we spoke with for this story says electronic monitoring in the workplace is increasing, and that as long as employees are made aware of it, and agree to it. There is no legal violation of privacy. oDesk does inform its freelancers about its monitoring software.

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