Briefing Overview

Title: The Emerging World of Worker Surveillance
Author: Ian Kearns
Approx. Reading Time: 4 minutes


The Emerging World of Worker Surveillance

Over the last year, books such as Shoshana Zuboff’s Surveillance Capitalism and Kai Strittmatter’s We Have Been Harmonized, have raised red flags about the extent of emerging private and state surveillance of the individual. The hi-tech surveillance apparatus of the Chinese state is one sign of what might lie ahead. The already extensive corporate monitoring and manipulation of the consumer is another. Now however, we can see that relations between employers and employees are going to be deeply affected too.

Evidence is mounting that employers across the world, including in the democracies, are installing surveillance systems to capture data on their workers every move. In the process, they may be changing the power relationship between employer and employee in fundamental ways and blurring the boundary between work and private life.

The New Landscape of Worker Surveillance

It has been possible for a long time for employers to monitor which web-sites their employees visit, what they do on social networking sites and what, if anything, they write on personal blogs. Other well-worn software tools have been used to log all activity carried out on computers, including all text typed, software used and files downloaded or accessed. Call centres have had the long-standing practice of recording calls between their employees and callers so they can monitor call handler performance and use the recordings for training and management purposes.

There have been many apparently justified cases of individuals losing their jobs because their surfing history or social media presence demonstrated values or behaviours deemed incompatible with their professional role.

More recently however, surveillance has advanced to a new level.

Some employers are linking microphones, accelerometers and location sensors to employee identification badges so they can track everywhere an employee goes, every movement they make and every social interaction they have. They are then analysing that data to determine which patterns of movement and interaction are linked to the highest productivity.

Other employers are installing tracking software into company issue ‘phones, computers and other devices that track employees’ movements both when they are in work and when they are not. One executive in California was fired recently for uninstalling an app on a company iPhone because it tracked her location and driving speed on a 24 hour a day basis, even when it was switched off. The case has since featured in legal proceedings.

Elsewhere, wearable technologies such as Fitbits are used as part of company health insurance schemes. These allow employers and insurers to capture a lot of personal data about steps taken and the wider exercise habits of employees. They also request information on diet, smoking habits and personal and family medical history. Although the schemes are opt-in, refusal to take part means higher health insurance premiums for both individuals and employers and there is concern that the devices are being used to demonstrate readiness and suitability for work. There is understandable unease about negative consequences befalling those who refuse to take part.

We are now also witnessing widespread employer use of software that can track facial expressions and tone of voice to decode the emotional state of employees. Eye-tracking software will soon be deployed widely to add to this ability.

Next, we have micro-chipping—the practice of placing a grain-sized radio frequency identification implant under the skin. This technique was pioneered in Sweden and has been taken up in other places since, with some employers holding ‘chip parties’ to facilitate installation. The chips track all employee movements and toilet breaks and serve as a security measure to allow access to secure or restricted facilities. They are sold to employees as convenience devices that replace the need for keys, ID badges and security passes. They also allow automated purchasing of food and drink from vending machines.

Wider Ramifications

As with many technologies, those being deployed to monitor workers can have both positive and negative effects. They can help protect assets and trade secrets from theft, improve employee health and well-being and raise overall productivity while reducing cost. Used as part of wider systems to monitor buildings and machinery they can drive improved health and safety in the entire work-place, reducing potential harm and legal liability for employer and employee alike.

On the other hand, they appear to be deployed in a legal vacuum where the admissibility of their use and the extent to which they violate personal privacy laws remains unclear. There are concerns that only the employers, not employees, see the data that is gathered and questions over who owns the data, including medical data, once it has been gathered.

Another worry is that sometimes the data is used to trigger ‘automated management’, or decisions by machine about individual employees and their suitability for a role, or to assess levels of performance. In wider labour market terms, it seems that monitoring of this kind may make it easier for employers to classify workers as contractors to limit pay and benefits while still retaining a high degree of control.

At a more fundamental level still, there are studies that show some employers use worker surveillance to dehumanise work by linking that surveillance to automated systems of prompts to change worker behaviour, stripping out any space for employee judgement, social interaction or initiative. And some seem to use surveillance data to restrict calculations as to the amount of time that was actually worked, so as to subsequently reduce pay.

For all these reasons, and precisely because there are powerful incentives both to introduce the technology and to resist its introduction, we are set for a battle over worker surveillance that will last for decades and span industrial relations, social and cultural attitudes, politics and the law.


Ian Kearns
July 2019

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Briefing Overview

Title: The Emerging World of Worker Surveillance
Author: Ian Kearns