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Being Watched While Working From Home

Due to the pandemic, more and more people find themselves working from home. As a result, employers have increasingly turned to new technologies for digital monitoring and surveillance. Applications such as TSheets, StaffCop, Teramind, and Hubstaff have all surged during the pandemic, and increasingly sophisticated software is being developed to track workers in new ways.

There is of course nothing new to the idea of employers monitoring and surveying their employees. In many companies and organizations, this is routine practice. And sometimes there can be good reasons for doing so, such as protecting company assets and property rights, optimising performance, ensuring compliance with legal and ethical codes, and so on.

The technology that has been developed and refined in the wake of the pandemic, however, has brought entirely new possibilities to the table. For instance, armed with new software, employers can track the mouse movements, keystrokes, and browser history of their employees. They can use webcams to see if workers are sitting behind their desks, and they can even use face scanning software to see if workers are paying attention. They can use software to see time spent in various applications, numbers of emails replied to, and percentages of words written in a joint document. Smart phones can be used to collect information on locality and movement patterns. The possibilities for monitoring and surveying workers remotely are huge.

All of this information can be used to say something about individual performance. However, it can also be used to say much more about us. For instance, information about our personal health, political observation, religious affiliations can all be inferred from our digital footprints. We should be careful about that kind of information being made readily available to employers.

The use of digital monitoring and surveillance of workers also raises more basic issues of privacy. For instance, having a webcam sending pictures from your home can feel like an invasion of your privacy, as well as the privacy of your loved ones. Having your keystrokes logged can potentially reveal critical information about yourself and others in your household, and the same goes for your browsing history, location data, and activity levels.

Moreover, feeling constantly surveyed can be immensely stressful and detrimental to the well-being of workers. For instance, increased electronic monitoring has been found to increase feelings of exhaustion and anxiety. Under constant surveillance, workers do not take necessary breaks and end up overworking themselves.

Furthermore, increased surveillance also raises moral questions in terms of personal autonomy. In some cases quite obviously as workers are being monitored and surveyed without their consent. However, even if workers give their consent to being monitored and surveyed, this does not mean that there is no worries from the point of autonomy. This is because the imbalance of power in the relationship between workers and employers raise doubt about whether consent can truly be given freely in this arrangement.

Moreover, even if we accept that workers can freely give their consent to being monitored and surveyed in the above way, this does not necessarily mean that it would be morally permissible to do so. There are (rightly so) limits to what we allow people to consent to, even when they do so informed and voluntarily. This is not least to protect vulnerable populations from exploitation.

It is worth noting, however, that there are many potential benefits to people working remotely. For workers, working from home can e.g. provide more flexibility, increase job opportunities, reduce transportation time, and potentially improve mental health. From a wider perspective, remote working e.g. benefits the environment through less transportation, reduces the spread of infectious diseases, and promotes a competitive job market.

There are potentially also many benefits to monitoring technologies like the above. Like technology in general, they can be used for both good and bad. For instance, location data is regularly used by emergency workers to ensure fast response times. Time tracking technology can potentially be used to prevent worker burnouts. And new monitoring tools can ensure greater compliance with ethical standards.

However, the potential downsides for workers are huge. Whether new monitoring technology will indeed benefit workers and society at large, as opposed to the narrow financial interests of corporations, depends at least in part on how the technology is regulated. We need policy makers to stay alert and ahead of the current technological development. Otherwise we will not just be finding ourselves working from home; we will be finding ourselves doing so without sufficient regards to our privacy, autonomy, and well-being.