Tracking employees’ movements brings to mind Bentham’s Panopticon idea of circular prisons with a single watchman

Ms Arias claims her ex-employer was able to track her every movement

Once it was just a dream. In the vision of the utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham, the Panopticon, a circular prison where just one watchman could scrutinise every inmate from a central “inspection house”, would bring “industry invigorated” and “a mill for grinding rogues honest.”

It was never built. The opposition of early 19th-century aristocratic landowners saw it off.

But that was then. Now, an American lawsuit has raised the prospect that technology has advanced to allow a latter-day Bentham – or snooping boss – to get their “industry invigorating”, honesty milling Panopticon with the greatest of ease. All it takes is just a small mobile phone with a special app – as the case of Myrna Arias, a Californian sales executive has appeared to prove.

Ms Arias is suing her boss, claiming that he was able to monitor her every movement, even off-duty, via a “job-management” app called Xora, which relayed her GPS position back to the office computer. Complaining of “highly offensive intrusion”, Ms Arias alleges that, despite initially consenting to the app during work hours, it was after the boss boasted that he knew how fast she was driving at specific moments, she uninstalled it, and was fired shortly afterwards.

But when it comes to the technology available to the employer intent on watching their employees, the Xora app may well be the tip of the iceberg. Other apps, some of them with sales of more than one million, boast of letting the anxious manager to read texts. At least one promises to give bosses the power to eavesdrop on their workers’ mobile phone calls.

“Wherever they are in the world,” says the publicity for TheOneSpy “employer monitoring software” “they are never beyond your monitoring range … If they are good, responsible employees, good enough. If they are not, you know what to do with them.”

Emma Carr, the director of the British campaign group Big Brother Watch warned: “This is definitely not going to go away. It is going to increase unless we have some sort of protection and expectation of privacy written into law. Some employers have been quite open about using this kind of technology. It’s creepy.”

Demand may be fuelled by recent reports portraying the British worker as workshy world-beaters. A report last summer suggested that UK employees were the most likely in Europe to ignore workplace bans on social media, with 41 per cent admitting to taking a sneaky look at Facebook, compared to just 20 per cent of French workers, who were the most social -media obedient. At the same time, a report by PwC suggested that workers’ unjustified “sickies”’ were costing UK business £9bn a year.

Professor Sir Cary Cooper, a leading member of the Work Foundation think-tank, was, however, horrified by the idea that managers should use tracking technology to check on staff. “It would be a very worrying development if these apps really took off, horrendous.

“Tons of studies have shown that the more a manager gives autonomy and trust, the more an employee pays back in terms of productivity. 

“British workers already have penal hours, the longest in the developing world behind the US. To improve this country’s low per capita productivity, what we really need is managers with better soft, interpersonal skills."

Watching Brief: Surveillance Apps

Xora StreetSmart

Offers the chance to “see the location of every mobile worker, where they have been and where they are now”. Intended as a tool for worktime monitoring only, judging by the website, which says: “When your field employees start their day, they simply launch the application.”


Marketing itself as “the best solution for keeping your children safe and workers productive”, with more than 1m customers worldwide, mSpy has already been dubbed the “bunny boiler” app by some because of its potential usefulness to distrusting partners. The basic service, at £39.99 for three months allows the reading of text messages. Upgrade to premium at £79.99 for three months and you can check on the keystrokes made by the employee, or install a “geofence” – if your worker moves outside a certain area, you get an email.


Australian-developed “employee monitoring software” promise the chance to “tap their cellphone’s calls, listen to them, intercept them or record them, read their entire SMS threads, listen to your target iPhone’s surrounding sounds by operating their microphone”. The remote monitoring feature “ensures that wherever they are in the world, they are never beyond your monitoring range”.

Both TheOneSpy and mSpy say that their apps are meant to be used only with the employee’s explicit awareness and consent.