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Companies are using a growing number of tracking services as employees work from home

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Do you ever feel like somebody's watching you always? May not be just your imagination. Companies are using a growing number of technologies to monitor - notice they don't say snoop on - you, their employees, during these work from home days. Companies like Teramind, InterGuard, ActivTrak, Hubstaff and TimeCamp track everything from how long it takes to respond to an email to periodically taking screenshots of your desktop. If you're uncomfortable with this kind of tracking, you know, there just may not be much to do about it under the law. Alexandra Reeve Givens is president of the Center for Democracy and Technology and joins us now. Ms. Givens, thanks so much for being with us.

ALEXANDRA REEVE GIVENS: Thanks for having me.

SIMON: We've listed a couple of things, but I wonder if you could tell us about a couple that particularly concern, even chill you.

GIVENS: Yes. And we're certainly seeing an increase of the sale of these tools during the pandemic. So we read and hear about tools that track every keystroke that a remote worker's making on their computer, some that take periodic screenshots of a worker's computer screen or check in on their microphone or their webcam to monitor their physical movements. I remember reading one story about a company that marketed this suite of strategies to basically generate a timecard every 10 minutes. It would capture what the employee was doing at exactly that point. And one of their workers gave an interview saying that he had to time his bathroom breaks...

GIVENS: ...So that he wouldn't get caught away from his computer and docked pay for the time during that 10 minutes if he'd stepped away.

SIMON: Forgive me - what if somebody is picking their nose?

GIVENS: Right. Exactly. I mean, this raises big privacy questions, right? If you think about the perspective of an employee, you're being asked to do work for a company. One hopes that comes with some trust about what you're able to do. But also, I think about all of those workers who aren't working in a private space during the pandemic. They might have family in the background when you're taking that picture from a webcam.

SIMON: What do employers want? What do they do with this information?

GIVENS: So a lot of them, I think, are trying to track productivity. Some of them aggregate that information. So they're just trying to understand at a more macro level, what apps are employees using? What are some of the trends we're seeing? And they think, OK, well, that makes us feel more comfortable because we're just looking at big picture patterns as opposed to, say, an individual disciplinary decision. But even if this is useful for tracking broader trends, it still really erodes respect for workers. And creating examples like people rushing or feeling bad that they can't take a bathroom break has health and safety concerns, as well.

SIMON: What do you think is necessary to end this? Or do companies really want to end it? New laws, new policies?

GIVENS: I think one thing is talking about it in fora like this. So employers get a gut check for a moment on what they're really asking of their employees. Sadly, right now the law doesn't have all that much to say about these tools. There are, of course, workplace safety laws, so to the extent that this impacts people's ability to go to the bathroom or for somebody with disabilities, if they're not being accommodated because of the surveillance in their space, there's a potential legal violation there that employers do need to pay attention to. Right now we don't think about the home as a workplace that much. After often times, OSHA, as it's called, focuses much more on factory settings, et cetera. But we need to update that for the 21st century and make sure that workers are protected wherever they're doing the work.

SIMON: Should people occasionally cover the eye of the camera, the microphone on their laptop when they're not working?

GIVENS: Yeah, I mean, I think in instances where technology...

SIMON: Even where they are, I suppose, yeah.

GIVENS: Right. So you - one does have the choice to do that. I think in those inside environments where a tracking tool has been deployed or you think a tracking tool might have been deployed, there the workers really do need to be asking questions of their employers to the extent that they can, challenging, what is this information being collected for and why? But also, that's just the tip of the iceberg in terms of worker privacy issues. We can think about different instances of employers looking at workers' social media feeds, for example, to see what they're talking about outside of work. And you think about the impact that has on people's free expression or the ability to organize as a union, for example.

You can think about instances where employers have gotten access to people's Fitbit information and their health tracking information. There are a lot of companies that have incentive programs for people to share that data with their bosses. All of those help, again, reflect this imbalance of power between employers and workers and just how much we can be quantified and tracked. And we really need to raise more awareness about this, help workers push back and hopefully fight for some legal interventions, too.

SIMON: Alexandra Reeve Givens is president of the Center for Democracy and Technology. Thank you so much for being with us.

GIVENS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.