The days of working from home while lounging in your sweats and cuddling with your pandemic pet may be over.
Now, employers want to ensure you’re as productive as possible — by using surveillance technology.
Since the start of the pandemic, demand for employee surveillance measures jumped 54%, according to research by online privacy review site Top10VPN.
Major companies are attempting to enforce task tracking via new technologies — such as Amazon’s truck monitoring technology or Microsoft’s productivity scoring software — that have been widely criticized.
Some employers have implemented virtual monitoring with programs like Time Doctor or StaffCop, which can log keystrokes, watch screens, take over a computer remotely, see employees’ locations, record audio and more.
While people might be used to their Amazon Echo smart speakers listening to their commands, they’re not so keen about being constantly spied on by employers.
Earlier this month, Mattel came under fire for noting in a remote job listing that the company can make “unplanned visits” to home offices.
“Hard, hard no,” Michigan state Sen. Mallory McMorrow wrote on Twitter. “If the work gets done and you’re an active part of the team, who cares what your home workspace looks like?! What is there to inspect?”
While many were adamantly against such invasions, others pointed out why the policies exist.
“It’s being pushed by insurance companies,” posted another user, who wrote that, as a federal employee, his contract is subject to such requirements. The tweeter (who did not respond to The Post’s request for comment) continued that if an employee is injured on the job, insurance companies need to know it happened at home.
Still, the thought of being watched is enough to make some people leave their jobs.
One mother, who declined to give her name and previously worked for an Illinois university as a social media manager, told The Post that she quit her job in October due to the promise of increased surveillance while she worked from home with her now-15-month-old son, who was born in August 2020.
When he turned 1 and she was still working remotely, employees were given six weeks’ notice that they’d have to return to the office full-time.
She says she was unable to find suitable daycare in that time frame, particularly any that required “vaccination for their staff.”
Then, her employer started a new initiative: allowing employees to work from home, but with caveats.
In September, employees who wanted to work from home were asked to fill out a form that described their job, their home office and what kind of childcare their family arranged, ensuring that they were not the primary caregivers.
“As somebody who worked from home for the entire pandemic with a brand-new baby — I never let my work slip and was always available when I needed to be available — it was quite an insult,” she said.
When she followed up with human resources, she says she was told there would be home inspections with a “reasonable” advance warning and that the company didn’t want employees committing “time theft” while working remotely.
“I decided that it was best [for me] to leave my job, especially in light of the work-from-home policy that they unrolled,” she said. “They seemed to really want to push the privacy envelope.”
Ari E. Waldman, a professor of law and computer science at Northeastern University, told The Post via email that these kinds of requirements are common.
“If you’re looking for a federal law that prohibits employers from engaging in ongoing, intrusive and unnecessary surveillance of workers, you’re not going to find it,” he wrote. “In fact, worker surveillance has been common since the industrial revolution.”
Even college students are subject to virtual surveillance during remote schooling and exams.
New York University uses ProctorU, an online proctoring service that utilizes students’ webcams and screen-sharing technology to ensure ethical test-taking while students are situated remotely.
Last year, faculty at UC Santa Barbara called on the Chancellor to halt the use of ProctorU, saying the service “mines the data of our students, making them available to unspecified third parties, and therefore violates our students’ rights to privacy, and potentially implicates the university into becoming a surveillance tool.”
Eye-tracking tech is used by some remote surveillance programs to ensure students don’t look away from their screens continuously, as if checking their notes. In other words, don’t even think about getting up to use the bathroom or grab a snack.
In Pennsylvania, law students taking the bar exam expressed outrage that ExamSoft didn’t take people with diabetes into consideration, despite test-takers submitting medical waivers ahead of time.
They also requested an investigation into ExamSoft due to privacy and data breach concerns, claiming unusual activity was discovered on their personal and financial accounts days after using the software.
ExamSoft later responded to a letter from the U.S. Senate inquiring about its practices, stating that it is a “secure assessment platform.”
Last year, Miami University student Erik Johnson took to Twitter to air his concerns about the software Proctorio, which was used for his online tests. He noted that, among other concerns, the program took footage of his study space and home. “A Proctorio agent will review and verify the test taker’s room scan,” he wrote of an alert he received, which underscored to him that it wasn’t just his professor who’d have access to his information.
Despite the potential risks of privacy loss, these online proctoring programs aren’t even necessarily accurate. One-third of the students who took the online California bar exam in October 2020 were flagged for cheating — more than a thousand people — according to a Bloomberg Law report. 90% of those originally flagged were later cleared.
More concerning to Waldman is if kids grow accustomed to this type of proctoring.
“The more common surveillance software is in education settings, the more desensitized young people will be to surveillance when they grow up and enter the workforce,” Waldman said. “It’s all part of the plan: Tech companies want to make intrusive surveillance of every move part of our daily lives, like brushing our teeth or putting on shoes.”
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