Rise of worker surveillance software

8 March 2022

During the COVID-19 pandemic, digital tools for tracking, monitoring and sharing data about workers have become more prevalent.

Software is now available to help employers automate recruitment and promotion, track the location of workers, monitor mouse moves and keyboard strokes, manage tasks, allocate shifts, encourage worker collaboration, observe remote workers by webcam, assess emails and web searches, and collect and analyse biometric data from facial expression to pulse rates.

Some estimates suggest one in five companies are already using digital monitoring tools, or planning to do so, as remote or hybrid working becomes the new normal.

These changes raise important practical questions around managing change and the legal framework of rights governing digital technology. The workplace is a critical arena for testing the relationship between digital transformation and issues of consent, rights, and how the benefits of new technology are shared. New technologies at work can be positive – for productivity, fairness, safety, or quality of work. But they can also bring risks – of dehumanisation, loss of privacy, built-in bias, and loss of accountability.

As part of my research with Digit, I have been looking at worker experiences of these new technologies. Prospect commissioned polling from Opinium in 2021 to look at a number of issues around public perceptions of digital technology, and alongside this, I have been observing how recent trends around the use of technologies are situated in a longer historical perspective.

Monitoring approaches from then to now

Employer monitoring is not a new phenomenon. Issues of control, performance and agency can be traced from the Industrial Revolution, through to the Scientific Management studies of the early 1900s, to more recent development of monitoring through digital technologies and digital people analytics in the last decade. Even digital monitoring is not new having been deployed in fieldwork, telematics and logistics for several years.

However, several trends have come together in the last few years to produce a step-change in how surveillance software performs and is used in the employment relationship:

  • Advances in digital technology – technology has become more sophisticated as products now claim to track physical states and emotions, not just location. The use of automated data analytics and AI also means that monitoring software can assess and make comparisons of performance between workers. There is no sign that these advances will slow down. New developments, such as the metaverse, raise further questions about the use of data and tech to monitor workers.
  • Increase in surveillance during the pandemic – widespread moves to remote working during the pandemic increased employer investment in connectivity tools, such as MS Teams and Slack. Lockdown brought such tools into our homes, raising issues around privacy, power and employment rights in domestic settings.
  • The well-being agenda – these digital trends have been accompanied by greater interest and research into impacts on wellbeing, mental health and the always-on culture. Evidence suggests some workers experienced burnout during the pandemic as a result of working longer hours and feeling unable to switch off (Prospect, 2021; Aviva 2021).
  • Diversification of employment models – many of these changes have been accompanied by an investment in technology to support the gig and platform economy as well as increasing experimentation with dispersed, flexible and temporary teams, with tools developed to manage gig type being more widely deployed into other professions (Baldwin, 2019; IFOW, 2021).

Under UK GDPR, workers have a right to be informed if their data is being processed and used. This includes data from digital monitoring or assessment systems. Employers also have a duty to consult workers about such data processing through a Data Protection Impact Assessment (DPIA). Employers’ responsibilities under existing legislation around equalities, health and safety, information and consultation, requires them to be alert to the potentially negative impacts of these new trends.

If legal frameworks, regulatory agencies, and civil society actors such as trade unions don’t keep up with changes to the form and application of digitalisation, the rapid advance of these technologies could prove to be a serious step backwards for the quality of working life. It is plausible that, in the face of increased remote and hybrid working, fairness, accountability and equality in our new digitally constructed, physically boundless “workplaces” could be seriously compromised.

Surveillance experiences

In reviewing results of the Prospect/Opinium survey for Digit, it was found that one in three British workers reported being subject to some form of digital monitoring at work. Thirteen per cent of homeworkers said that they were monitored by webcam, whilst 10 per cent reported email/chat response time monitoring. This, of course, are just the people who are aware of such monitoring.

This evidence supports anecdotal reports from several trade unions, including Prospect, about a rise in employee concerns and disciplinary issues related to monitoring software.  Polling by Prospect/You Gov in September also highlighted the scale of these concerns. During the pandemic, Prospect has seen an increase in disciplinary and performance management cases relating to members data, relating to services such as task allocation software and tracking software.

The new frontline in workers’ rights

Digital technology will continue to augment and change how we work and are managed. Whilst there are clear benefits to how technology can improve the nature and quality of work, it also raises issues around privacy, employment rights, equality law and health and safety. Data is increasing becoming the new frontline in workers’ rights.  The scale and speed of these changes need to be understood, and where necessary new controls put in place through legislation, regulation or negotiation at employer level.  Trade unions themselves need to regard data as part of their organising agenda. There are signs that this already happening, with the establishment of the TUC’s AI Working Group, and greater collaboration between unions internationally around tech issues. Prospect has recently published a digital rights bargaining guide and is identifying new Data Reps to sign alongside more traditional roles, such as Health & Safety Reps.

We need to get serious about these risks now and take a stand. The risks are that we are sleepwalking into a new age of surveillance where dispersed workers are monitored, measured and checked.

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