Is your boss spying on you? All you need to know about employee surveillance
Working from home? Finally, you’re out of your boss’s sight. Or are you? It turns out your employers can see more of what you do on your computer than you might expect.
Hopefully, you’ve figured it’s best to keep your work computer for work only. But with the lockdown and the sudden turn to remote working, many employees are using their personal computers for company business. And whichever device you use to log in to work, your boss will have access to at least some of your data.
The Covid-19 pandemic has revolutionized the way we work, and this shift towards working remotely has led to a rise in companies keeping track of their employees’ productivity through various tools and software, leading to some serious privacy concerns.
And these are just standard work tools used to monitor employee performance. Despite 72% of workers saying their productivity would not go up if their employer used monitoring software, 12% of all firms have already installed it (16% at larger firms), and 8% already plan to implement it (11% at larger firms). Tracking software like this has an ominously William Gibson-esque nickname: bossware.
With so many jobs involving web tech and remote work, Surfshark has examined the state of employee monitoring today. Read on to find out how much your boss can see of what you do and for some best practices for keeping your employer out of your apps — and out of your head.
How are employers monitoring employees?
Employers use a variety of techniques to track a variety of activities. The techniques depend on the hardware and software you use for work and what else you use these assets for.
For example, bosses may use unpublicized features of their corporate email package to look out for trigger words in your emails. Or they may use dedicated bossware to check that you’re actually at your computer when you say you are (unless you use Homer Simpson’s genius hack).
And don’t think you’re out of sight using your work cell phone on the weekend. Employers can install hidden software on your device that tracks your movements via GPS, all SMS messages, and track other messaging app use, and even record calls and Skype interactions.
Comparing the most popular bossware tools
Bossware is just a nickname. Its creators market their surveillance programs as productivity software.
Sneek is one such app. It automatically sends regular webcam pictures of employees to the boss and allows instant video-conferencing with no “decline call” function. Yet the creators of the app present it as a mental health aid for workers who miss the collective workplace atmosphere. .
“Just having that ability to look up and see your teammates there can make all the difference,” explains Sneek cofounder Del Currie.
But what precisely do the different bossware packages do? If you spot any of these names cropping up on your computer, use this checklist to see their snooping capabilities. But be aware — your boss may be able to hide the program’s presence altogether.
What your boss can see
Employee monitoring software comes with its own “war room” screen, and each program has its own look and emphasis. Some list the times or hours you worked; others use colorful data visualizations to flag your “biorhythms” throughout the day. Some use algorithms to balance your productivity against your wages to literally figure out whether you’re worth the money you’re paid.
How to protect your privacy under employee monitoring
As with so many areas of networked life, a sense of personal vigilance is necessary to keep you safe and in control of your data. With messaging, staying in control means not saying anything on work software or a work computer that you wouldn’t want your boss to see.
Use a separate app and/or device for gripes, nicknames, and escape plans. And don’t forget to delete your drafts if you accidentally start typing a sensitive email in your business account.
Zoom is ubiquitous these days. Many of us would rather use the work account than pay for a subscription, and your boss may allow this. But note they will receive the names of anybody you call and can access recorded meetings if you save them in the cloud.
Where are the bossware capitals of the world?
A lot of bosses got “bossware-curious” after sending their employees home for lockdown. In March 2021, Surfshark scraped search engine data for bossware searches around the world in the last 12 months.
Leading the way is Sweden, with 327.75 searches per million people. Work-from-home culture in Sweden is pretty much the norm, with 53% of Swedish employees working from home full-time or part-time.
A critical moment for worker privacy
Since work monitoring is legal in most countries, employees are left with little to protect themselves. In their personal lives, people at least have a right to privacy with tools like Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) or being able to choose what services to use. However, that’s not the case in workplaces.
We are at a critical point in the development of bossware practices. With the mainstreaming of remote work, virtual workplace privacy is yet to be regulated to satisfaction.
As Amazon’s recent union ballot demonstrated, worker privacy is both an essential right and a valuable bargaining tool. Amazon even went so far as to have a mailbox installed outside its Bessemer warehouse, raising concerns that the ballot itself was closely (and intimidatingly) surveilled by the firm.
But as bossware becomes more pervasive and employers figure out just how closely they can monitor their newly remote employees, being watched at the postbox may be the least of your worries.
We researched the top bossware tools recommended across various lists from respected industry sources such as PC Mag, TechRadar, and Business.com to compile the most popular tools and what functionality they offer employers for spying on their employees.
We also researched how employers can monitor activity across popular tools like Zoom and Slack. In the process, we found tips about what employees can do about this and how they can change their behaviors to avoid disciplinary issues.
How do you know if you’re being monitored at work?
You might be able to tell if you’re being monitored by looking for employee surveillance apps on your work device. If you can’t find them on the list of installed apps, you may see them running on Task Manager (Windows) or Activity Monitor (macOS).
However, some bossware can be completely hidden, and you wouldn’t know about being watched unless your employer tells you about it.
Is audio surveillance legal in the workplace?
The legality of audio surveillance in the workplace differs from country to country and from state to state. If you want to learn whether or not audio surveillance is legal in your country or state, consult a legal expert in your area.
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