Is digital monitoring affecting WFH workers’ privacy?

COVID-19 has led to increased use of AI, algorithms and even facial recognition technologies to track employees and their work throughout the day

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The COVID-19 pandemic has led to increased use of artificial intelligence, algorithms and even facial recognition technologies to track employees and their work throughout the day, according to a recent report.

With companies around the world implementing work-from-home policies over the past year, the trend is expected to gather pace, with surveillance technologies controlling how, when and where people work spreading to several industries.

The techniques and tools of the platform economy have spread far beyond gig work, resulting in widespread ‘gigification’ and restructuring of workplace behaviours and relationships, jobs and communities, the report by the Institute for the Future of Work, a British research and development group, said.

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Interviews with “frontline workers and technology developers about the algorithms systems used in retail, logistics, manufacturing and food processing reveal that businesses are introducing these systems often with vague notions of their effectiveness, beyond an appetite for innovation for innovation’s sake”, the report said.

Also read: How your ‘work from home’ may reduce property prices sharply

“This creates an environment of almost total surveillance, collecting and processing data about every aspect of working life, in real time. This is used to drive people to complete more tasks in less time, intensifying their work. Standards set by the system are then used to evaluate and manage performance, incentivise or penalise workers, and grant or deny them access to stable work contracts,” the report said.

With ‘work from home’ increasingly the only option for businesses and workers, the spread of such technologies will only become more pervasive, the report said.

American news network CNBC spokes to Andrew Pakes, deputy general secretary at UK-based trade union Prospect, who said these “digital leash” technologies have been on an upward trend for some time and that COVID-19 remote working has accelerated it.

“This was an issue we were picking up before Covid but over the last year, it’s grown rocket boosters as companies have turned to technology,” Pakes said.

“On the one hand, technology has been really important in keeping us safe and connected whilst being at home but there’s another side to it and that’s the worry we’re seeing around it.”

In September 2020 Prospect published research into British workers’ attitude to these technologies, and the majority of respondents in one survey said they were uncomfortable with the likes of camera monitoring or keystroke monitoring.

Prospect asked survey participant about different forms of monitoring technology that are already in use across the UK and are being actively considered for more widespread introduction by employers. It found that:

  • 32% of workers had heard of keystroke monitoring and camera tracking technologies
  • 66% of workers would be uncomfortable with keystroke monitoring with 44% very uncomfortable
  • 80% workers would be uncomfortable with camera monitoring with 64% very uncomfortable

Last year Microsoft faced criticism over its “productivity score” in Microsoft 365, which allowed managers to track an employee’s output. The company later apologised for enabling the feature, which critics said was tantamount to workplace surveillance.

“At Microsoft, we believe that data-driven insights are crucial to empowering people and organisations to achieve more,” Jared Spataro, the corporate vice president for Microsoft 365, said. “We also believe that privacy is a human right, and we’re deeply committed to the privacy of every person who uses our products.”

PwC faced similar backlash last year for developing a facial recognition tool for finance firms that would monitor an employee and ensure they are at their desk when they’re supposed to be. And Fujitsu developed an AI tool to study facial movements to determine how hard someone is concentrating in an online meeting or class.

“Having your every keystroke or app usage monitored by your boss while you are working in your own home may sound like a dystopia, but there are precious few controls in place to prevent it becoming a daily reality for millions of workers across Britain,” the report quoted Prospect general secretary Mike Clancy as saying.

While such studies are hard to come by in India, as the use of such technologies increases around the world, authorities in the country will have to put in place regulations and safeguards to protect businesses as well as employees.

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