Is your boss spying on you?

From monitoring your trips to the loo and listening to your conversations to keeping  track of illicit office affairs, your employer could be using a host of new technologies to snoop on you like never before

About 12 years ago, I worked in a large office in Camden Town. It wasn’t a particularly easy time in my life, and, for various reasons, I found myself spending much of the working day firing off angry personal emails and scouring the web – until one day when I arrived at work to discover that my internet access had been suspended. Up until that point it had never occurred to me that my activities might have been monitored. Shocked and embarrassed by what the IT department might have seen, I knuckled down. Two months later, my lesson learned, they gave me my internet access back.

It was a fair cop. After all, the company had, in effect, been paying me to conduct personal business during working hours. Few of us are under the illusion that the time we spend at work is ours to do with as we please; we’re there to perform tasks in exchange for money and expect some form of monitoring to ensure that we don’t skive. But in recent times, technology has brought about a shift in the balance between surveillance and employee privacy. Whereas in the past, a switchboard operator might have listened to the beginning of your call to check its purpose, today companies may have filters in place which, for example, flag up the mention of “CV” in an outgoing email.

That shift is set to become more pronounced as intelligent sensors become smaller and more affordable. The announcement of Hitachi’s Business Microscope, “a system that uses sensor technology [embedded within nametags] to analyse company communication and activities” has caused something of a stir recently, as have similar products made by two American companies, Sociometric Solutions and Steelcase. These sensors can detect movement around the workplace, interaction between employees, “body and behaviour rhythms” and much else besides, creating a wealth of workplace data that can then be collated and analysed by companies such as Evolv, which claim to be “redefining workforce optimisation through big data”. In a recent interview with the Financial Times, Evolv’s co-founder Max Simkoff said, perhaps tellingly th “every week we figure out more things to track.” Soon, your boss may not just be watching you; he may be sensing you, too.

“The danger is that this technology can turn your staff into data points,” Nick Pickles, director of Big Brother Watch, says. “As a manager there may be a clear attraction to having lots of data about how your business and your employees are working, but you may be undermining the very trust you require to maintain a conducive and happy workplace.” There are good reasons for businesses to employ some level of surveillance, including the protection of business interests, maintaining quality of service, complying with health and safety legislation and so on. The concern that Pickles and other privacy campaigners have is surveillance being extended unnecessarily and becoming a creeping problem. “The likelihood of this technology only being used for the purpose it started out with is nil,” Pickles says. “Winston Churchill got rid of ID cards [in 19852] because at the beginning of the war they were used by four government departments; by the end of the war it was 64.”

The data produced by these sensors is certainly valuable; study and analysis could bring about greater understanding of working patterns and lead to improvements that do indeed make us happier and more fulfilled at work. (Higher productivity being achieved as a consequence of co-workers taking breaks together rather than individually is one of many findings that Sociometric Solutions has uncovered during its work.) But the analysis of hundreds of millions of these personal “data points” by a company such as Evolv could eventually produce data sets that cover the entire career of an individual, following us from job to job and depriving us of the opportunity to creatively airbrush our past within the context of a one-page CV. “Perhaps the most chilling part of this trend,” Pickles says, “is the way management of employees is being delegated to computers.”

There’s disagreement over the effect that workplace monitoring might have on productivity. The famed “Hawthorne Effect”, observed in a Chicago factory in the late 1920s, tells us that people work harder when they’re being studied, then revert to normal when the study has ended. But Hazards, the Sheffield‑based occupational safety and health magazine, claims precisely the opposite on its website – that productivity drops as a result of monitoring. While it’s clear that workplace rules are less likely to be violated if the monitoring of those violations is stepped up a gear using new technology, it’s possible – as with CCTV – that this only provides a short-term deterrent. The longer-term effect on staff morale may be far more damaging to a business.

There’s also the knotty problem of sensor-generated information being interpreted in unforeseen ways, despite it appearing to be benign and uninteresting. The knowledge, for example, that two colleagues regularly arrive at or depart work together may allow an employer to deduce personal information that they have no right to know. “Employers have to be very careful,” Juliette Franklin, an employment lawyer at Slater & Gordon, says. “A disabled person or someone with an unspecified condition might, say, spend longer in the restroom than others, and you may end up acting in a discriminatory fashion towards them as a result of gathering this rather bizarre information.” The gov.uk website specifically states that employers are “not allowed to monitor workers everywhere (not in the toilet, for example)” but if a camera or sensors are used investigate, say, breaches of smoking rules in those same loos, that’s precisely what can happen as an indirect consequence.

Unfortunately for employees, they will generally have signed employment contracts that permit them to be monitored in this way. “Even when the justification for the surveillance is flimsy employees are increasingly powerless to challenge or stop this intrusion on their privacy,” says Pickles. The only redress for employees, it seems, comes after the fact, when that information ends up being used in a way that affects them adversely. “There are limits to what can be done with the information,” says Franklin. “If it’s felt that it was gathered in an unfair, unlawful or discriminatory manner, it may give rise to a remedy by an employee, or indeed a prospective employee.” But according to Pickles, the only real check on the expansion of surveillance technology is whether you would want to work for a company that treats its employees in such a fashion.

“At the heart of British employment law is the concept of mutual trust and confidence, the idea that the employment relationship is a two-way street where employees and employers treat each other with respect and have confidence in each other,” he says. “The danger is that this technology makes the relationship entirely one way.”

There’s an irony, perhaps, that these sensors are started to be deployed at a time when many companies are finally realising that happy employees are more productive. The effect of sensor technology on individual workers will largely depend on the culture that already exists within their workplace. There have always been bad bosses. But bad bosses with an excessive amount of your personal data could be even worse.

Travel
travel
Arts and Entertainment
The cast of The Big Bang Theory in a still from the show
tvBig Bang Theory filming delayed by contract dispute over actors' pay
Sport
England celebrate a wicket for Moeen Ali
sportMoeen Ali stars with five wickets as Cook's men level India series
News
Morrissey pictured in 2013
people
PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
ebookA wonderful selection of salads, starters and mains featuring venison, grouse and other game
Voices
A family sit and enjoy a quiet train journey
voicesForcing us to overhear dull phone conversations is an offensive act, says Simon Kelner
News
peopleGuitarist, who played with Aerosmith, Lou Reed and Alice Cooper among others, was 71
Travel
travel
News
Robyn Lawley
people
News
people
News
i100  ... he was into holy war way before it was on trend
Arts and Entertainment
High-flyer: Chris Pratt in 'Guardians of the Galaxy'
filmThe film is surprisingly witty, but could do with taking itself more seriously, says Geoffrey Macnab
News
people
Life and Style
food + drinkVegetarians enjoy food as much as anyone else, writes Susan Elkin
Life and Style
lifeDon't get caught up on climaxing
Life and Style
tech
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Gadgets & Tech

    Senior IT Trainer - Buckinghamshire - £250 - £350 p/d

    £200 - £300 per day: Ashdown Group: IT Trainer - Marlow, Buckinghamshire - £25...

    SAP FICO SOLUTION ANALYST

    £55000 - £65000 per annum + Benefits: Progressive Recruitment: SAP FICO SOLUTI...

    Data Analyst

    £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A highly reputable software house is looking ...

    SAP PROJECT MANAGER

    £60000 - £70000 per annum + Benefits: Progressive Recruitment: SAP PROJECT MAN...

    Day In a Page

    Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
    Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

    How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

    As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
    We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

    We will remember them

    Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
    Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
    Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

    Acting in video games gets a makeover

    David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices
    Could our smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases via Health Kit and Google Fit?

    Could smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases?

    Health Kit and Google Fit have been described as "the beginning of a health revolution"
    Ryanair has turned on the 'charm offensive' but can we learn to love the cut-price carrier again?

    Can we learn to love Ryanair again?

    Four recent travellers give their verdicts on the carrier's improved customer service
    Billionaire founder of Spanx launches range of jeans that offers

    Spanx launches range of jeans

    The jeans come in two styles, multiple cuts and three washes and will go on sale in the UK in October
    10 best over-ear headphones

    Aural pleasure: 10 best over-ear headphones

    Listen to your favourite tracks with this selection, offering everything from lambskin earmuffs to stainless steel
    Commonwealth Games 2014: David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end

    Commonwealth Games

    David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end
    UCI Mountain Bike World Cup 2014: Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings

    UCI Mountain Bike World Cup

    Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings
    Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

    Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
    Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star