Get Surfshark
  • Search
  • EN
  • Log in
  • Get Surfshark
  • Menu
Smile - You're on camera

Is Your Boss Spying on You?

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 lockdown and the sudden turn to remote working, many pros are using their personal computer 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 remote-working 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 that’s just standard work tools. 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 practice for keeping your employer out of your apps – and out of your head.

How Do Employers Monitor Employees?

Legally or otherwise, employers use a variety of techniques to track a variety of activities. The techniques used depend on the hard- 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 other messaging app usage, and can even record calls and Skype interactions.

The Most Popular Bossware Tools, Compared

Bossware is just a nickname. Its creators market their surveillance programs as productivity software.

Sneek, which automatically sends regular webcam pictures of employees to the boss and allows instant video-conferencing with no ‘decline call’ function, has been explained away 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, in several cases, your boss can 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’ve been caught working; others use colorful data visualizations to flag your ‘biorhythms’ through 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.

Click here to view the gallery in full size

Bossware: What Is the Law?

Bossware isn’t necessarily good for bosses, either. Tracking software values fingers on keypads and ignores pauses for thought. Trust is essential to the worker-employer relationship and actually boosts productivity. As new trends promote an “increasingly unstable boundary between office and home”, the boss’s respect for that boundary becomes more pertinent.

However, business owners don’t always think in those terms – and that’s where the law steps in. These laws are in flux while the new remote work culture stabilizes, which makes it all the more important to keep abreast of what’s legal – because in some cases, your boss won’t.

How to Protect Your Privacy When Your Boss Is Spying on You

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, that means it is best not to say 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. Surfshark scraped search engine data for bossware searches around the world for the year to March 2021.

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. As of last spring, only 42% worked from home so the country has seen an 11% increase in the number of employees working from home since the COVID-19 pandemic. Our data shows the increase might be making bosses nervous.

employee surveillance worldwide
Click here to view the map in full size

A Critical Moment for Worker Privacy

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 satisfyingly regulated. 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.


Methodology

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 and found tips targeted at what employees can do about this and how they can change their behaviors to avoid disciplinary issues.

Resources

1. Arora, G. (2017).Can Google Workspace Admin Read My Email. goldyarora.com

2. Berzinya, A. (2020).16 Worst and Most Extreme Ways Employers are Spying on Their People. turtler.io

3. Blackman. R. (2020).How to Monitor Your Employees — While Respecting Their Privacy. hbr.org

4. Clark, B. (2018).Here’s how to find out if your employer can spy on your Slack conversations. thenextweb.com

5. Cyphers, B., Gullo, K. (2020).Inside the Invasive, Secretive “Bossware” Tracking Workers. eff.org

6. Department of Justice. (2021).Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986 (ECPA). bja.ojp.gov

7. Digi Helpdesk. (2020).Microsoft Teams inactivity timeout: How to reset your status and more. digihelpdesk.co.uk

8. Dinita, M. (2021).Can Microsoft Teams Be Used to Spy on You. technipages.com

9. Djordjevic, B. (2019).Most Common Types of Employee Monitoring. workpuls.com

10. Dodd, V. (2020).Remote-working Compliance YouGov Survey. skillcast.com

11. Dooks, K., Kirk, E. (2013).Ownership and use of social media by employees in the UK. thomsonreuters.com

12. Dwyer, K. (2020).Is My Workplace Watching Me. marieclaire.com

13. ECHR. (2013).European Convention on Human Rights. echr.coe.int

14. Ella, V.J. (2016).Employee Monitoring And Workplace Privacy Law. americanbar.org

15. Employment Law Online. (2021).Is it legal for my company to install a monitoring service on my computer. employmentlawonline.au

16. European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights. (2021).Article 8 - Protection of personal data. europa.eu

17. EUR-Lex. (2021).Document 32016R0679. eur-lex.europa.eu

18. Fairbanks, L. (2021).The Best Employee Monitoring Software of 2021. business.com

19. Falque-Pierrotin, I. (2017).Opinion 2/2017 on data processing at work. europa.eu

20. Federal Register of Legislation. (2021).Telecommunications (Interception and Access) Act 1979. legislation.gov.au

21. FindLaw. (2019).4th Amendment Search and Seizure Protections. findlaw.com

22. GOV.UK. (2021).Data protection and your business. gov.uk

23. Gray, K. (2021).The bossware boom is upon us: a look inside the employee monitoring software market. businessofbusiness.com

24. Griffin, A. (2016).How To Stop Your Boss Spying On You, As European Court Rules Bosses Can Read Messages. independent.co.uk

25. Haden, J. (2013).Inside a Completely Transparent Company. inc.com

26. Hill, K. (2012).How To Tell If Your Boss Is Spying On You. forbes.com

27. Information Commissioner’s Office. (2021).In the picture: A data protection code of practice for surveillance cameras and personal information. ico.org.uk

28. Kimura, T. (2015).How new data-collection technology might change office culture. cbc.ca

29. Klosowski, T. (2021).How Your Boss Can Use Your Remote-Work Tools to Spy on You. nytimes.com

30. Legislation.gov.uk. (2021).Data Protection Act 2018. legislation.gov.uk

31. Legislation.gov.uk. (2021).The Telecommunications (Lawful Business Practice) (Interception of Communications) Regulations 2000. legislation.gov.uk

32. Martins, A. (2021).What Is Keystroke Logging. business.com

33. Morse, J. (2019).7 Slack privacy settings you should enable now. mashable.com

34. Office of the Australian Information Commissioner. (2021).Workplace monitoring and surveillance. oaic.gov.au

35. Office of the Australian Information Commissioner. (2021).Privacy in your state. oaic.gov.au

36. Prospect. (2020).Workers are not prepared for the future of working from home. prospect.org.uk

37. Reputation Refinery. (2016).Your private Slack conversations, might not be private at all. reputationrefinery.com

38. Sevilla, G. (2020).The Best Employee Monitoring Software for 2021. pcmag.com

39. Shein, E. (2020).How your actions on Zoom could get you fired. techrepublic.com

40. Shelton, M. (2019).Newsrooms, let’s talk about Google Workspace. freedom.press

41. Shook, E., Knickrehm, M., Sage-Gavin, E. (2018).Decoding Organizational DNA. accenture.com

42. Spencer, A. (2021).Can your private messages at work be read by your employer. dba.org.uk

43. Stowers, J. (2020).7 Ways Your Work Tech Is Betraying Your Privacy. businessnewsdaily.com

44. Suemo, J. (2020).12 most asked questions on UK employee monitoring laws. worktime.com

45. Turner, B., Robarts, S. (2021).Best employee monitoring software of 2021. techradar.com

46. Victorian Legislation. (2021).Surveillance Devices Act 1999. legislation.vic.gov.au