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.

Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookA delicious collection of 50 meaty main courses
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

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

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Gadgets & Tech

    SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

    £18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped OTE: SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consulta...

    SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

    £18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped OTE: SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consulta...

    Recruitment Genius: Network Support Engineer

    £25000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Network Support Engineer is r...

    Recruitment Genius: Account Director - Tech Startup - Direct Your Own Career Path

    £25000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

    Day In a Page

    Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

    Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

    But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
    Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

    Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

    Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
    Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

    Britain's 24-hour culture

    With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
    8 best children's clocks

    Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

    Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

    'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

    In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
    Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

    The Arab Spring reversed

    Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
    King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

    Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

    Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
    Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

    Who is Oliver Bonas?

    It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
    Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

    Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

    However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
    60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

    60 years of Scalextric

    Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones
    Theme parks continue to draw in thrill-seekers despite the risks - so why are we so addicted?

    Why are we addicted to theme parks?

    Now that Banksy has unveiled his own dystopian version, Christopher Beanland considers the ups and downs of our endless quest for amusement
    Tourism in Iran: The country will soon be opening up again after years of isolation

    Iran is opening up again to tourists

    After years of isolation, Iran is reopening its embassies abroad. Soon, there'll be the chance for the adventurous to holiday there
    10 best PS4 games

    10 best PS4 games

    Can’t wait for the new round of blockbusters due out this autumn? We played through last year’s offering