From prisons to factories to offices: the spread of workplace surveillance and monitoring tech

A new report from Data & Society (previously) goes into depth on the ways that employers are increasingly rolling out workplace surveillance and monitoring technologies that "exert greater control over large workforces, rapidly experiment with workflows, detect deviant behavior, evaluate performance, and automate tasks."

While some of these technologies offer legitimate solutions to real problems, they're more often deployed in ways that simultaneously make life harder for workers and make it harder for workers to push back against employer overreach.

The report is a neat illustration of what I've called the adoption curve for oppressive technology, which goes, "refugee, immigrant, prisoner, mental patient, children, welfare recipient, blue collar worker, white collar worker."

Remote monitoring and time tracking through GPS-location, computer monitoring software, app-based activity trackers, and remote sensors allow managers or clients to manage large groups of workers indirectly. Many workers on platforms are classified as independent contractors despite the company having significant control over worker actions. Gig platforms like Handy.com and Uber, for example, use apps to decentralize their control of worker activities, but still collect detailed data about trips, communications, and pay. This information can allow companies to nudge workers in ways that advantage the company, but not necessarily the worker (such as directing workers to perform a poorly compensated task that they might not accept if given more information). Recently, Instacart came under scrutiny for using tips that drivers receive in order to supplement pay when they didn’t earn enough to meet the minimum wage. While the company has since changed its policy, others like DoorDash and AmazonFlex continue to engage in this practice. Companies are able to do this because they have detailed information about worker earnings.

Finally, the collection of biometric and health data through wearables, fitness tracking apps, and biometric timekeeping systems are newer forms of workplace monitoring. These programs are often part of employer-provided health care programs, wellness programs, and digitally tracked work shifts. Employers, like BP America, are adopting these devices for their employees in a bid to improve employee health habits while simultaneously persuading insurance companies to reduce insurance rates at significant savings to the company. Additionally, fitness apps and wearables usually follow employees out of the office, bringing workplace privacy concerns into their private lives.

Workplace Monitoring and Surveillance [Alexandra Mateescu and Aiha Nguyen/Data & Society]

Monitoring & surveillance technologies shift power dynamics in the workplace (summary) [Aiha Nguyen/Data & Society Points]