On why we should be wary of new safety-enhancing monitoring technology

The Panopticon is a building where the occupants could be watched over by one observer. Image by John Ryle

News from the front desk No 485: Purpose-built employee monitoring software has also been “flying off the shelves” since the pandemic started. What’s going on?


It’s totally predictable but concerns are mounting fast that the coronavirus pandemic is ushering in a new wave of dubious monitoring and surveillance technology that will be tough to eradicate once it takes root.

This tech to work out when people are coming into close contact is readily available and encouraged at the highest level, with the federal government’s CovidSafe tracing app central to its plans to get things up and running again (despite the app being a complete dud from a performance point of view).

An expert in comparative politics at UNSW Arts and Social Sciences, Dr Carolien van Ham, warns that we shouldn’t be complacent about the introduction of surveillance methods to combat COVID-19, such as tracking apps and drones.

She says that there is no way of knowing that the privacy of data stored in these apps can be guaranteed, or that the information gathered wouldn’t be exploited for political campaigns.

Van Ham is also worried about the use of drones as another form of surveillance, which could outlast the pandemic and be used at large events such as protests or festivals.

Building technology companies are also marketing products to building owners and managers that promise to keep occupants safe from Covid when they come back to the office. Among the offers is video surveillance to measure the flow of people and work out if social distancing is being practised.

It’s not hard to predict what could well come next.

Coupled with facial recognition technology, these systems will be able to monitor staff interactions. They’ll be able to potentially reveal people congregating for non-work or recreational purposes (maybe for a bit of gossip) or, more worrying, rack down and snuff out legitimate concerns some staff might have about the workplace.

And we all know that typically, once new technologies are in place, they’re hard to get rid of.

How worrying?

Dr Mark Andrejovic, a lead investigator at the new ARC Centre of Excellence in Automated Decision-Making and Society, says that the cover of Covid has been used to introduce new technologies for geo-tracking in the workplace (and just about everywhere else).

At the “Australia at Home” webinar on Wednesday Andrejovic spoke about workplace surveillance, in the context of the NSW Upper House Inquiry into the “Future of Work” that features a review of workplace surveillance laws in the state.

It’s an interesting time to be thinking about this with the mass transition to work-from-home – something that would have been virtually impossible without modern tech platforms such as Zoom and Slack.

Fittingly, the popular video conferencing platform Zoom experienced its own workplace surveillance drama, with a function that allowed meeting hosts to monitor participants disabled after concerns were raised.

“The fact that that functionality is built in there tells us something about the assumption that these tools will also be used for monitoring purposes,” Andrejovic says.

More worrying is that Jathan Sadowski, research fellow in the Emerging Technologies Reseach Lab at Monash University who spoke out our 2019 Tomorrowland event says that purpose-built employee monitoring software has also been “flying off the shelves” since the pandemic started,.

This software comes in an array of colours and flavours. Some take randomised screenshots of employee screens; others mirror the at-home laptop screen back on the workplace screens so that the boss can wander around the empty offices, keeping an eagle eye on what their staff are doing working from home.

If used fairly, there are benefits to the technology. For example, a manager might be able to watch their employees and propose shortcuts and skill enhancements. By measuring performance, there’s also the potential to “gamify” work so that employees are self-motivated to work productively.

This is the nice stuff in the marketing material, fed directly to employers. Andrejovic says that the pitches to the employers are, in fact, “quite extreme” and claim to measure “everything they saw, did and said”.

Sadowski is concerned about the rapid uptake of this technology.

While workplace surveillance has always existed and typically goes hand-in-hand with capitalism, for Sadowski this new era of employee monitoring software puts surveillance into overdrive.

“The capabilities of these tools far exceed what managers could do before.

“Even the most nosey, over-intrusive manager can’t monitor you constantly to the same degree that they can using this software.”

He says while this software has been around for a while, lockdown conditions have made them “more palatable”, and some companies are specifically using Covid in their marketing material.

The foundational issue at play, Sadowski explains, is that it puts all the power in the hands of the employer.

By collecting this data, employers have a powerful database of proof that they can draw upon if they want to make redundancies or salary reductions.

Those tea breaks and short personal phone calls are generally accepted by employers at the time but when they want to get rid of you, those incidents can be easily aggregated to build a strong case for fair dismissal.

NSW Greens MP David Shoebridge, who is on the NSW Future of Work committee, says it’s a “very unhealthy development” to be moving towards a situation where workers are punished or penalised for taking short breaks.

He also says that these technologies pose huge privacy risk by allowing employers to peer directly into our homes.

It’s when you mix and match systems that big problems arise

And while platforms tend to offer privacy protections and deidentification functionality, Kobi Leins, Melbourne University, School of AI and Digital Ethics, says that it often only takes three data points to re-identify someone.

“This isn’t about individual systems. You might have multiple different platforms and it’s when they are used in conjunction that the issues really start to arise.”

On top of that, there’s a considerable lack of transparency about what is and what isn’t happening to the data.

Warehouse workers even more at risk

It’s not just office workers feeling Big Brother’s prickly eyes. In fact, warehouses and logistics facilities are a hotbed for this type of surveillance infringement that well predated Covid.

However, as more stores, even smaller local ones, have become more like warehouses – with staff packaging up goods ordered online to be sent out through post – there’s potential for more people to bear the brunt of these issues.

The experience of Amazon offers a glimpse into this minefield: The tech giant attracted attention for the wristband device for workers that signalled if warehouse workers were moving in the wrong direction.

But Andrejovic say these devices could be co-opted to collect data on how fast workers are working. It’s alleged the tech giant could be using this data to shed presumably its least productive workers and hire replacements that aspire to their “ever escalating measurements of performance”. Amazon is on the record denying it unfairly pushes its workers.

Andrejovic says that some companies might take advantage of the surplus workforce post-Covid to double down on this strategy and risk burning workers out even faster, at least in the short term.

Turning people into robots, literally

The other downstream effect is that the data collected by these types of devices can effectively be used as template for full automation and robotic replacement of human workers entirely.

Andrejovic says that this is Uber’s long term game plan – it’s absorbing the huge losses it’s making in the gig economy with the knowledge the infrastructure and groundwork is being put in to automate its ride-sharing service entirely.

Fairer technology is possible

The good news is that workplace surveillance technology, like all tech that came before it, is neither inherently good nor evil. It’s neutral.

Monash University’s Jathan Sadowski says it’s a matter of designing it with fair and equitable values in mind so that all parties benefit, not just the employer.

“At the moment they are designed with discipline and surveillance in mind.

“We should – and could – design in care and compassion so that these systems actively complement the work of people, and make it easier.”

“The market [for these products] should be employers themselves.”

The NSW government is taking a shot at getting ahead of this technology with its future of work reforms.

Labor leader in the Legislative Council and shadow minister for industrial relations, Adam Searle, who is also on the workplace reform committee, says that NSW’s first set of workplace surveillance laws were designed to limit the powers of employers using cameras to stop worker theft.

Considered “groundbreaking” at the time, the NSW act mandates the use of clear signals that the employer was being watched – cameras have to be clearly visible; signage needs to be present; and employees need ample warning before cameras are installed.

“Obviously, people get distracted by technology, it’s just the most recent manifestation of pre-existing and age old power imbalances in the workplace.”

Searle says that the issue is that it’s typically only the employer that knows what workforce data is being recorded, which is then weaponised to squeeze out extra productivity and financial gains.

“But because this information is opaque, workers, or even collections of workers through the unions, have no agency nor access to it, and have no benefits of sharing in the productivity benefits.”

As a legislator, Searle hopes to be able to “put workers in the driver’s seat, or, at worst, make them more equal partners in how the information is used.”

NSW Greens MP David Shoebridge, who is on committee, says the inquiry is the most comprehensive in Australia and shows that the government is trying to get one step ahead of these issues, rather than reacting to them.

Core to the work is providing meaningful remedies for people when there are breaches to the rules, either through unions or individual action.

He says the NSW Greens are big supporters of the inquiry, which also focuses on the rights of gig economy workers.

He says the inquiry comes in the context of a retreat by most states and territories from regulating workplaces, with annual leave and workplace surveillance among the last remaining legislation.

And while nationally consistent legislation on workplace surveillance is desirable, Shoebridge says this looks unlikely when there’s moves afoot at the federal level to further strip back worker protections.

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