Think WFH means your boss isn’t watching you? Think again | John Naughton
Pandemias, as historian Yuval Noah Harari observed at the beginning of the present, tend to accelerate history. If you doubt it, think back to, say, January 2020. If you had told people then that in April of that year, big companies would insist that most of their staff work from home, they would have thrown you fun looks and wanted the closest get away. No one had heard of Zoom then and something called “video conferencing” was considered either a geeky assignment or the last resort for organizations that couldn’t afford airfare for senior executives to Rotterdam. or Las Vegas for a one hour meeting.
And then, in the blink of an eye, working from home had become not just an acronym – WFH – but a cliché and Zoom, like Google before it, had become a verb as well as a noun. The tedious daily commute has been reduced to going from the bedroom to the kitchen to a laptop on a desk. During an early period, utopian visions of a better work-life balance flourished. But then the new reality emerged: instead of us going to the office, the office had come to us and we were working there, eating and sleeping.
Still, we had a little more autonomy WFH than we had in the office under the piercing supervision of managers. Or so we thought. But capitalism – and its servant, technology – never sleeps. These managers, who had always viewed telecommuting as some kind of scam to avoid work, realized that digital technology was just the way to keep tabs on their new remote subordinates. This would ensure that they weren’t lazily browsing Pinterest, or bidding on eBay, or doing private emails, or a thousand other unproductive things at the company’s expense. And so, a swarm of tech companies evolved to respond to those paranoid suspicions. Thus was born the new small technology industry.
Coworker.org is an admirable American non-profit organization that creates digital tools and communities for employees to share information, form collectives and advocate for change. He also campaigns to prevent employers from dismantling hard-won labor rights through increasingly sophisticated surveillance, data mining and workplace fragmentation. And it recently released a large database of companies that make “bossware” – software that allows employers to closely monitor staff working from home.
The first thing that strikes when browsing through the database entries is that employers looking for intrusive surveillance of their homeworkers have a large number of tools to choose from, ranging from general surveillance software (sometimes benign , such as detecting inappropriate or inadvertent attempts to share confidential data files) to surveillance of a truly frightening kind.
One company (chosen at random) describes itself as providing “robust, cutting-edge technology that makes employee tracking simple and effective.” Its keystroke and activity tracking feature helps “keep track of remote employee keystrokes and mouse click activity” and can “detect and send alerts about suspicious keyloggers, fake keystrokes and attempts to copy data prohibited to management”. etc
Another, billed as your favorite small business employee monitoring tool, asks you if “you know how much time your employees spend working.” Personal use of employers’ computers is widespread beyond belief. Track their IT activities and learn what performance is exemplary and who is abusing their workplace.
Most of these blurbs for broad privacy intrusions are covered in three layers of company cant on “ethics” and “consent,” which should make employees who see them laugh – with precision – as equivalent to this: accept this or look to work elsewhere.
Coworker.org also published a 73-page report, Little Tech Is Coming for the Workers, which makes for interesting reading. Among other things, it reveals that little technology is not so little: the database includes 550 companies. They include some giants that have worker monitoring products in their portfolios, but a lot of smaller companies that most of us have never heard of.
The report states that “venture capital, private equity and hedge funds are funneling record investments into expanding this unregulated market whose products erode labor standards for workers and exploit weak labor protections” . For these investors, the lack of regulation is a feature, not a bug. So is the fact that technology is a force of, as the report puts it, “depersonalization and dehumanization.”
This industry revealed by Coworker.org research may be low-tech, but in some ways it just mimics its big brother. Reading the presentation texts of its products, we leave with the same feeling that we get when inspecting the algorithmic tools of the technology giants. In either case, software written by a small elite is designed to monitor, classify, and exploit “ordinary” people in ways that programmers and their corporate masters themselves would never tolerate. And in that sense, it’s just another example of how power corrupts those who possess it.
what i read
How Facebook turned Canada’s trucking convoy into an international movement is a great analysis on The edge by Ryan Broderick.
An insightful essay by Yaël Eisenstat and Nils Gilman in Noema magazine: The myth of technological exceptionalism.
Why are people nostalgic for the early life of the pandemic? is a gripping examination by Morgan Ome and Christian Paz of the weird nostalgia captured on TikTok and YouTube.