The Nightmarish Loss of Privacy in the Workplace | News and Comments

Powerful new technologies continue to emerge that enable surveillance in all kinds of new ways. But just because something box be done, does not mean that it should be. The current Chinese government is showing us what it looks like when there is no space between what can be done and what is being done – when technology is used to monitor and control without checks and balances. But many U.S. workplaces are also “anything goes” surveillance environments, where employers face few constraints on their use of cameras, keyloggers and other sensors to monitor and track. their workers.

Last week the New York Times published a fascinating article story on the growth of micro-surveillance of workers, whose funding has increased eightfold in the last five years alone. Zephyr Teachout also released a vast and devastating room on the same trend in The New York Review of Books this month.

Last year, I wrote about Amazon’s use of AI cameras to micro-surveillance its truck drivers, and how less powerful workers will be the first to be placed under oppressive AI surveillance microscopes — but what ‘Ultimately, in one form or another, such surveillance is likely to affect everyone. Indeed, one of the points of the Times story is that it is happening now:

“Architects, university administrators, doctors, nursing home workers and lawyers described increasing electronic surveillance with every minute of their workday. They echoed complaints that employees in many lower-paying positions have voiced for years.

As with Amazon drivers, many of these professional workers are subject to second-by-second surveillance by cameras, as well as micro-keyboard and mouse trackers, which mercilessly record any diversion from the keyboards of workers, and mark them, and base their evaluations and pay on these measurements.

Clearly, employers have legitimate interests in ensuring efficiency and productivity. But we should not allow electronic surveillance that goes beyond legitimate management concerns or becomes so intense that it creates an oppressive atmosphere of pervasive surveillance or intimidation.

There are at least three reasons why this is a bad idea.


1. Technologies are often imprecise and unfair.

While new technologies make it possible to track the physical movements of workers more and more accurately, the Times story makes it clear that they remain crude and inaccurate when it comes to interpreting this data, and therefore unfair. for workers in many ways. AI algorithms are highly unreliable at interpreting human meaning and activity, but are increasingly trusted to make judgments about people, including workplaces. Sometimes the problems are even more basic; for example, the Times interviewed social workers, therapists and hospice chaplains who were seen as not working when away from their keyboards – even though an essential part of their job is actually talking to people .


2. Surveillance is bad for people.

Intense surveillance, in addition to feeling bad, is actively unhealthy for workers. years of studies showed that oppressive surveillance (or even just perceptions of surveillance) causes stress and anxiety in people. As Teachout summarizes,

“Electronic surveillance places the body of the person being monitored in a state of perpetual hypervigilance, which is particularly bad for health…. Employees who know they are being watched can become anxious, exhausted, extremely tense and angry. Monitoring causes stress chemicals to be released and keep them circulating, which can make heart problems worse. This can lead to mood swings, hyperventilation and depression.

She points a study of 2,100 call center workers, known for their extensive use of electronic monitoring. The study found that 87% of workers reported high or very high levels of stress, with a remarkable 50% saying they were prescribed medication for stress or anxiety.


3. Surveillance is often counterproductive

There’s good evidence that workplace surveillance can be counterproductive for employers — and not just because it makes workers unhappy. This can create what business professor Ifeoma Ajunwa describe as a “sentiment of opposition, where employees see the employer not as benevolent, but as dictators”. And it can inhibit the agency that makes workers perform better. A study found that when workers in a Chinese factory were free from the surveillance of their bosses, their productivity increased. Workers were less creative and efficient when they were nervous or felt they were being watched, the study found.

Of course, some companies won’t care about any of this and would rather achieve brutal efficiencies by burning out miserable workers. Teachout argues that this is the approach favored by Jeff Bezos and Amazon. At the same time, many employers will never institute this type of monitoring, whether out of tradition, because they understand it is counterproductive, or because their workers have enough market or union power to backtrack.

Overall, however, it is clear that oppressive levels of workplace surveillance are becoming more commonplace. This is likely the result not only of new technologies, but also of increased monopolization and more than 40 years of political domination by pro-business politicians (since the end of what American historians call the “New Deal Ordinance” in 1980). Policymakers must do something about this problem, not only by directly regulating the use of this surveillance in the workplace, but also by expanding the protections for workers to organize and fight for democracy in the workplace. workplace.

About Dianne Stinson

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