Is your company spying on you? Digital surveillance tools track your productivity when working from home

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Thursday, May 7, 2020
Digital surveillance: Tools keep track of employees' productivity while working from home
WORK FROM HOME SURVEILLANCE: Is your company watching you while you work from home? Some companies are looking at tools to make sure their employees are actually working.

SAN JOSE, Calif. (KGO) -- There is no denying the COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way we work.

With millions now working from home, some companies are considering digital surveillance tools to make sure their employees are actually working.

To some degree, plenty of people are already being monitored by devices.

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If you're an iPhone user, Screen Time shows when you're most active and which apps you use most frequently.

Depending on which communication platform your company uses, applications like Slack alert your colleagues about whether you're active or away.

"In a way, that's a form of surveillance right there," Ian Sherr, Editor at Large at CNET News told ABC7 News. "And I think the question is how far are we all willing to go?"

Sherr pointed to statistics, showing that across the country, productivity is up now that people are working from home.

"There's still some employers who honestly just don't get it yet, and are thinking about installing apps that would basically surveil their employees," Sherr added.

It's called digital surveillance, and the demand for monitoring software has gone up.

"Since this thing started, the coronavirus pandemic, 16-percent of companies ordered this kind of software because they'd like to monitor their employees," Cyber Security expert and professor at SJSU, Ahmed Banafa said. "Companies on the other side, who provide these kind of services, they saw 40-percent increase from their current customers asking for more licenses."

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More licenses to monitor more employees. While companies feel digital surveillance will help increase productivity, some argue whether it really invades privacy.

"There hasn't been a ton of testing around this stuff. This is all very new in terms of legal ground and what not," Sherr said. "But, I think one of the interesting things will be the question of whether or not employers should even take the step."

Sherr said it's not beyond reason that employers could make that move.

However, he explained, "I think that as the employment world gets a little better, as the unemployment rate dips down again- whenever that starts to happen- employees will have more power in negotiations."

"I have a feeling that if mass surveillance really does happen, and that's an 'if,' employees are going to push back," Sherr said.

Experts said these new tools require trust and transparency. Specifically, communication about what activity is being recorded.

Is your boss keeping track of your keystrokes? Will cameras or microphones be turned on? Will messages be read?

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"That type of surveillance kind of breaks the agreement that I'm doing my work, and you're getting results," Sherr said. "And in some way it doesn't matter, as long as I'm doing my work well."

"The employer has a responsibility of telling employees, 'This is the software we are using for monitoring, and this is what we're going to monitor,'" Banafa said. "Because transparency and knowledge will make it much easier for me to accept it."

Workplace surveillance isn't new, but trying to navigate the process during this pandemic, definitely is.

"The clear winner in this fight with the pandemic is technology, because we have seen so much advancement in technology and so much transformation to digital technology," Banafa said. "And many companies, they never thought about it. They thought, this is going to be five years from now."

"It just smashed all the barriers and said, 'You have to be digital,'" he continued. "And this is one of the byproducts of this- okay, I'm digital. You stay home. I want to watch what you're doing."

Sherr said it's important that people are having these conversations, and subsequently, questioning boundaries.

"What are we comfortable with? Where do we want to draw those lines," Sherr asked. "That is going to mold the conversation going forward. It's a lot better honestly, than seeing a bunch of employers go off and do something, and we have to try to pull them back."

ABC7 News presented viewers with a Twitter poll asking viewers whether they'd welcome the approach. For reaction and response, click here.

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