Earlier this year, Amazon successfully patented an “ultrasonic tracker of a worker’s hands to monitor performance of assigned tasks.” Eerie, yes, but far from the only creative method of employee surveillance. Upwork watches freelancers through their webcams, and a UK railway company recently equipped workers with a wearable that measures their energy levels. By one study’s estimate, 94 percent of organizations currently monitor workers in some way. Regulations governing such conduct are lax; they haven’t changed since the 19th century.
The most common snooping techniques are relatively subtle. A system called Teramind—which lists BNP Paribas and the telecom giant Orange as customers on its website—sends pop-up warnings if it suspects employees are about to slack off or share confidential documents. Other companies rely on tools like Hubstaff to record the websites that workers are visiting and how much they’re typing.
Such software “solutions” pitch themselves as ways to enhance productivity. But trouble emerges, critics say, when employers invest too much significance in these metrics.
That’s because data has never been able to capture the finer points of creativity and the idiosyncratic nature of work. Where one account manager might do her best thinking behind a desk, another knows he’s sharpest on an afternoon stroll—a behavior that algorithms could blithely declare deviant. This then creates “a hidden layer of management,” says Jason Schultz, director of the NYU School of Law’s Technology Law & Policy Clinic. Those midday walkers might never find out why they’ve been passed over for a promotion. Once established, the image of the “ideal” employee sticks.
Try to hide from this all-seeing eye of corporate America—and you might make matters worse. Even the cleverest spoofing hacks can backfire.