Tech Savvy: Pandemic highlights risk of ‘Big Employer’ surveillance
As those working from home struggle to uphold the difference between work lives and personal lives, there is also the rapid emergence of remote-employment monitoring by companies as a form of quality control. Perhaps it’s the pessimist in me, but I have to wonder what dangers that poses.
Back in 2016, there was a viral photo going around that illustrates much of the modern cybersphere — the highs, the lows, the mundane, and, yes, a number of theoretical questions that take on dystopian proportions the more and more one considers them.
It’s a photo of a man sitting in a sleek-looking computer lab — probably located somewhere in Silicon Valley, most likely. He’s posed, facing the camera with bright eyes and a grin on his face, as he holds a prop, an Instagram frame, through which his head, shoulders and upper arms are contextualized. Everything has that advertising department shine to it, that magic touch of public relations. Everything is artificial.
It was a celebration of garnering 500 million Instagram followers and the lucky man is Mark Zuckerberg. What stood out to viewers wasn’t the achievement, the setting, or Zuckerberg himself, it was the fact that Zuckerberg had taken a piece of tape — possibly scotch — and pasted it over his laptop’s microphone and webcam to obscure them.
3 things about this photo of Zuck:
Camera covered with tape
Mic jack covered with tape
Email client is Thunderbird pic.twitter.com/vdQlF7RjQt
3 things about this photo of Zuck:
I think back to this photo often for a number of reasons. Lizard men paranoia aside — is there any person who's done more to shape the modern internet-driven society than the founder of Facebook? And what does that tell us when Zuckerberg, of all people, is taking these precautions, manually blocking the microphone and camera of his personal computer in such a simple, crude way? Who is he hiding from? What is he hiding from? The possibilities have such a spooky, disconcerting quality, that it’s almost natural to imagine some faceless enemy reaching out, penetrating the screen, and emerging from the laptop like an enraged poltergeist.
As the coronavirus pandemic slowly grinds toward its one-year anniversary here in the States, the prevalence of internet culture — computers, broadband, social media — has only taken on more vital dimensions in our daily life.
"If we’re going to work remotely, we need a new electronic communications privacy act, one that creates legal boundaries where there were once physical boundaries."
More than 40% of American workers are working remotely from home during the pandemic, according to recent studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Stanford University. Not only do people’s personal and daily lives largely exist through a prism of remote technology, increasingly our work lives do so as well.
According to a recent survey by the Society of Human Resource Management, more than 70% of employers are having difficulties transitioning to remote work. Another survey by PricewaterhouseCoopers finds roughly half of companies are seeing a dip in productivity with this shift.
Of course, the natural outcome is the rapid emergence of remote-employment monitoring by companies as a form of quality control.
Perhaps it’s the pessimist in me, but I have to wonder what dangers that poses. Of course, there’s a good rationale for these programs. As it’s often said, the way to Hell is paved with good intentions, and one doesn’t have to search far before they find comparable arguments and concerns with Patriot Act-style mass surveillance. Do we, as a society, need to address issues of national security? Most definitely. But, to what degree and to what extent is that surveillance necessary? What are we giving up in the process?
The same principles apply here, except instead of Big Brother the potential villain is Big Employer. Here, the stakes are just as high, just as horrifying. In the least troubling scenarios, they threaten the sacred boundaries we struggle to uphold between our work lives and personal lives. At worst, they could upend our increasingly tenuous notions of community and privacy, or the sanctity of a unique, indispensable self. You can’t leave your problems at work in this reality. In a world where there’s no dividing line between work and home, history has shown time and time again that work cannibalizes the home, and that’s frankly no way to live.
"More than 70% of employers are having difficulties transitioning to remote work."
— according to a recent survey by the Society of Human Resource Management
But, people are going to work from home, regardless of what’s written here. Despite being an information-based economy for decades and an internet-dominated culture for more than 20 years, we’ve been reluctant to bring the workplace into our homes. Between 2005 and 2015 — despite the advent of high-speed internet or apps like Zoom, Slack, Messenger, and Skype — the percentage of people regularly working remotely increased only between 2% and 3%. Roughly 37% of American jobs could be done full time from home, according to the National Bureau of Economic Research. Yet, before the pandemic, only about 4% of Americans worked from home for half of their work hours or more.
That’s likely to change. Just as the Black Death spurred the Renaissance in the mid-1300s, COVID-19 has the potential to forever alter human conceptions of work, gainful employment and daily life in the 21st Century — it just may take some time to get rolling.
More employers are going to realize that renting office space is an unnecessary expense that inhibits profits. More retailers are going to realize malls and brick-and-mortar stores are a costly waste of revenue. More workers are going to gravitate toward premium jobs that aren’t limited to areas with high costs of living.
Signs are emerging that this remote-employment revolution is in the burgeoning stages. A 2020 survey by Gartner CFO revealed 74% of companies intend to keep some proportion of their workforce on a permanent remote status, with nearly a quarter of respondents saying they will move at least 20% of their on-site employees to permanent remote status. The Silicon Valley giants are leading the charge, with Facebook, Google and Alibaba shifting a significant section of their workforce to permanent remote status. As this model becomes more viable and prevalent, it’ll start to become commonplace.
That means that, depending on the industry, working from home is probably going to become much more regular. And, thus, the concerns associated with remote-employment monitoring are likely to come to the forefront. As such, it’s important to be aware of just how invasive these monitoring programs can be and just how little restrictions they have.
Depending on the state, employers may or may not be required by law to notify their workers they are monitoring them via their webcams, software that tracks mouse activity or clicks, or compiling private browser data. Some of these programs, such as InterGuard, can be installed remotely, without the employee’s knowledge or consent. Big Brother, indeed.
These programs can be quite elaborate in scope. They can monitor what an employee does online; what they type; capture screenshots; timestamp what files are accessed and when; track their location via GPS; and, in some cases, measure an employee’s productivity down to the Nth degree; or even go so far as to punch them off the clock if they’re away from the computer for more than 60 seconds.
"Roughly 37% of American jobs could be done full time from home,"
— according to the National Bureau of Economic Research.
And if it can occur with such ease, regularity, and legality, it’s foolish to think this won’t be abused and often. Maybe Zuckerburg was right to scotch tape his laptop like a fifth-grade science project. Maybe we’d do well to follow his example.
However, while invasive, home monitoring of remote-employed workers is not illegal. It’s generally not considered a violation against the Fourth Amendment — the Constitutional provision that guards against unlawful search and seizure.
So what exactly is protecting us? Not much, really. Just a skeletal framework of outdated laws that are woefully ill-equipped to handle the modern world. We could get lost in the weeds, but it’s safe to say most of our protections are grounded in the Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986. In those halcyon days, the World Wide Web was mostly in the conceptual stages. Smart phones, social media, webcams, and the like? Nonexistent.
I don’t know if there are easy solutions to such a complex, extensive and quickly developing conundrum, but I think that’s a good place to start. If we’re going to work remotely, we need a new electronic communications privacy act, one that creates legal boundaries where there were once physical boundaries. We need a new, robust framework of laws that protects that sacred divide between the workplace and the home.
Otherwise, what’s the alternative? Are we ready to pit ourselves and our paychecks against multi-billion corporations in court? Are we going to unionize with colleagues we never met, never befriended, or never knew existed?
The future is now. Either we get ahead of the curve and address modern problems with modern solutions, or we’ll see consequences that once only belonged in the dystopian hellscapes of science fiction.
GABRIEL LAGARDE may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 218-855-5859. Follow at www.twitter.com/glbrddispatch .