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Privacy fears over employers using monitoring software to check home workers are at their desks

·2-min read
Mid adult woman in her 30s sitting at table and looking at computer, remote working, freelancer, small business
Many employers are using monitoring software to check that remote employees are at their desks. (Getty)

Privacy organisations and data regulators have warned about employers using controversial surveillance software to check home workers are at their desks.

Demand for such software has spiked in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, with one company, Hubstaff, saying that demand has tripled since March.

Other software such as Time Doctor, ActivTrak and StaffCop also helps employers keep tabs on home workers, Wired reported.

In Britain, the Information Commissioner’s Office has launched an investigation into Barclays’ use of software from Sapience Analytics, which sent warnings when employees were away from desks for too long, New Statesman reported.

Read more: Is your employer spying on you?

Following a backlash from employees and unions, Barclays said it would only use anonymised data from the tool.

A spokesman for the ICO told the Sunday Telegraph this week: “People expect that they can keep their personal lives private and that they are also entitled to a degree of privacy in the workplace.

“If organisations wish to monitor their employees, they should be clear about its purpose and that it brings real benefits.

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“Organisations also need to make employees aware of the nature, extent and reasons for any monitoring.”

Privacy groups have warned that employers are increasingly able to insist on the use of such software, as employees worry about their jobs.

“It’s increasingly hard to say no,” said Eva Galperin, cyber security director at the California-based Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) group.

“In this economy, what are your other options, when there’s 20% unemployment? It can be very coercive.”

Read more: Silicon Valley hubris… or The Matrix in real life?

Unions have warned that such surveillance tools raise the possibility of watching employees in a new level of detail.

Andrew Pakes, research director at British trade union Prospect, said new monitoring tools were bringing surveillance into white collar roles and could potentially be extended across the workforce.

“Technology is transforming the level of intrusion and the ability for hyper surveillance,” he said.

Wired magazine reported this week that some remote workers were using tech tools such as separate machines and “virtual machines” to appear busy to employers.

One Florida programmer told the magazine: “My employer sent me a laptop running with all their corporate spyware on it.

“Right next to it is my own computer for all my personal stuff. Can they detect when I haven’t touched the laptop for an hour? Possibly. But I’m not being paid by the hour.”

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