Monday, September 20, 2021

Corporate Surveillance Of Employees Via "Tattle Ware" - I Had Warned About It Over 24 Years Ago


Employee aware of being keylogged working at home.

In my 1997 Usenet Tract (later book) 'The Elements of the Corporatocracy', I had written (p. 6):

The first worker tracking systems, using crude scanners were introduced in the 1970s. Such systems, for example featured (Larson., The Naked Consumer,  p. 133)

"programmed computers to watch for subtle diversions from normal sales patterns at each checkout lane - having found that by the end of each day the pattern of sales from any one lane should mirror the pattern of other, comparable lanes. Any major departure is flagged as an 'exception log

And, of course, after a certain number of exception logs' - the worker is questioned about his -her habits.

 Today, the corporate art of employee spying has reached a pinnacle. In most modern corporations, for example, employees are tracked on their computers all day. Time off computers is also tracked. At any given time, special info-systems compile exact tracking statistics on which files an employee accesses, for how long, and whether these are on the system hard drive, or a floppy. A supervisor can also 'peek' surreptitiously into the employee's data files at any time desired - to see what is actually on their screen or what they are typing. These files can also be accessed, and stored indefinitely. 

Now, as if to reinforce those predictions,  Sandy Milne writing in The Guardian  recently reported on the rise of “bossware” or “tattleware”, essentially spyware that enables managers to monitor their employees working from home. (A move I also noted in my recent post on "Bezos-ism") That includes a new program called Sneek, (get the name) which uses the remote worker's webcam to take a photo of him about once a minute and sends it to his supervisor.

 The objective is to prove that you're is not away from your desk doing God knows what. You’re not warned in advance, so the photograph taken can catch you doing pretty much anything – picking spinach out of your teeth, smelling your own armpit, scratching balls or any of the other totally normal things human beings do when alone but that no one really wants documented and distributed. It’s a level of invasion that would horrify even the NSA.  And that was before Snowden exposed the agency's XKeyscore software.

There are good reasons for the lack of trust between employer and employee – alas, they are mostly the fault of the employer. Companies took out PPP loans to stay running through the pandemic and then laid off thousands of workers anyway. There is widespread wage theft adding up to hundreds of millions of dollars a year, and social media is full of stories of restaurant owners withholding their waitstaffs’ tips.

Yet reading the news might give the impression that it is the workers who are the problem. The New York Times    though one of my go to papersalways seems to feature columnists (e.g. Bret Stephens) overly worried about whether remote work is making employees more likely to do something horrific like operate in their own self-interest and leave their jobs for a better opportunity.  And heaven forbid,  The Wall Street Journal found some workers who were doing two full-time jobs simultaneously, fooling each of their employers into thinking they had their full attention, and made a federal case out of it.   But this isn't surprising given the Journal has been one of the prime culprits pounding on those getting pandemic unemployment to "stop bumming and get a job" -  and "if you need cash to live on, raid your 401k or ask the IRS if you can borrow from your Social Security:."

 A more reasonable response to hearing that a guy is pulling a double salary without increasing his workload one bit should be: “Well, congratulations, you managed to beat the system!"   But in reality such a person in America who ever admits it to pals will be treated like a deadbeat or crook,  never mind he did it because one of his employers was using him for overtime without the OT rate.

The WSJ columnists like Dan Henninger, William McGurn, Kim Strassel etc, have also constantly ridiculed those who have preferred to work at home.  But studies on working from home tend to show that people are actually more productive, but employers are still terrified that their time is being wasted. No face time, means more loafing time, as one corporate exec once put it.

Little concern, of course, is displayed when employers waste their employees’ time, with, say, endless meetings, nonsensical demands, and not-technically-required-but-there-will-be-repercussions-for-not-attending “social” events during non-work hours. And every freelancer knows the pain of the time wasted trying to just get paid, submitting multiple invoices, crafting carefully worded “Just checking up on this!” messages, calling and emailing and texting and pleading and hiring a private detective to find the person in the accounting department who can finally cut you a check for $237.52 that they have owed you for three months. But newsflash! You have zero power and you are exactly $69.17 away from making your rent this month.  

Freelancers and gig workers have been on the cutting edge of not being trusted by their contractors for a long time now. Delivery drivers and warehouse workers are tracked relentlessly. White-collar freelancers like designers, writers, copyeditors, transcribers and other office workers are often asked to use “time management programs” that not only track down to the second how long you work on a task but will detect and deduct “lag time” by monitoring whether your keyboard or trackpad is being used, to make sure that the contractor who is probably already underpaying you doesn’t have to pay for the three minutes you went to the bathroom. If anything, this kind of software forces workers to make constant useless gestures toward productivity – banging arrow keys and swirling cursors around just to keep their pay from being docked.  And lord help you if a honcho happens to catch you with eyes closed! "Can't stay awake there, fella?"  "No, I was thinking about a strategy for this brachytherapy bid!"

Where are the apps for fomenting a needed rebellion to help weary, underpaid workers ? The software that will create an exact hologram of you working at your computer - so when Sneek takes photos "you" will be there?  Where are the programs that will type useless drivel for you while you go eat a burrito in peace to surf the web on your Surface.  Where is the software to fool your GPS so you can stop hurriedly for coffee while making it look like you are still on the predetermined route? If anyone needs to be tracked, it’s the accounting departments that approve invoices and issue payments to freelancers and subcontractors.  American workers need to find out what they’ve been doing with their time instead of writing those useless checks.

There absolutely has been a breach of trust between employer and worker,  e.g.

because too many corporate employers only care about exploiting their staff.   In the case of the link above, that involved paying less than minimum wage, working off the clock, and refusing to pay overtime rates.   In less egregious, but still trust undermining examples - corporate honchos track keystrokes and use hidden cameras to track staff. I can still recall the hysteria back in 1996 when a female employee - at one of only 2 corps I ever worked for -  became nearly hysterical after finding a hidden cam in her corner office.  Too humiliated to stay on - she quit on the spot.

However, ultimately it is not up to the underpaid, stressed-out and exploited American worker to prove he deserves respect and independence. Employers need to treat their workers as something more than an inconvenience, or  interference with profits, or a distraction from the stockholders.  Basic respect is a good place to start, but privacy, better pay, and dignity will take the employment system much further.  In the end, I am convinced the capitalist system is to blame because it is constrained to see workers as obstructions to profits that need to be managed and constantly exploited.   This is why one corporate honcho - when he let his guard down in one Baltimore WBAL interview (ca. 1995) admitted in the ideal situation "everything is automated so there's no sick days, no benefits to pay out, and no workers to keep an eye on."

The sad fact is that the only out for many workers now is either to win a lotto,  score a job that rewards one for using actual talents and level of education - or succeeds in writing a million- selling novel that makes the NY Times best seller list.

See  Also:

by Amy Goodman and Denis Moynihan | September 17, 2021 - 5:52am | permalink

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