The office: they're watching us!

Technology makes it easy for employers to keep workers under constant surveillance.

smile scannerBy Noel O'Hare


In Japan, workers of the Keihin Electric Express Railway company smile a lot. The company has installed scanning cameras at its railway stations. The technology analyses facial characteristics and rates them on a scale from 0 – 100 based on “eye movements, lip curves and wrinkles”. The 530 railway employees have to pass a smile-test every day.

Technology is making it increasingly easy to monitor every aspect of an employee’s work day and employers are not slow in taking advantage. Employee monitoring is a booming business and is already standard practice in many workplaces.

Employers can and do read your emails and instant messages; record websites visited and searches made; monitor phone use; track mobile phones and company cars with GPS; install video cameras in workplaces; log every keystroke and measure typing speed.

In most cases, of course, employees need to be told they are being monitored. But if you object to this invasion of privacy, it’s unlikely to change and may only cause your employer to suspect you have something to hide. One of the reasons cited for the growth of employee surveillance is that fewer workplaces are unionised these days, giving the workers little say in the conditions of their employment.

Slacking off, surfing the web, taking extended breaks and attending to personal affairs in work time are some of the reasons that employers give for assuming powers that the FBI would be jealous of.

Employee monitoring, however, is sometimes about more than checking up on off-task behaviour. It can be used to pit one employee against another with productivity league tables. “Are you pulling your weight in the office,” asks a US productivity poster. “When the monthly statistics are published, ensure you’re not dragging down your team or office.”

It makes it easy for unscrupulous employers to turn, say, call centres and data centres into electronic sweatshops.

Technology enables people who work at home to be just as closely monitored as those in the office. Remote monitoring software, which can automatically take a screenshot of an employee’s computer activity every few seconds and trigger an alarm, means that, while enjoying a game of golf, can send a message to employees to tell them to get back to work.

Smart phone or tablet use is just as easily monitored as a computer or laptop. Apps like Mobile Spy, according to the sales pitch “will reveal the truth for any company or family. You will finally learn the truth about their call, mobile web, text message activities, photos, videos and GPS locations by logging into your Mobile Spy account from any web browser.”

Microsoft has taken out a patent on employee surveillance software that would use “sensors to monitor the user's heart rate, blood pressure, body temperature, galvanic skin response, EMG, brain signals, respiration rate, movement, facial movements, facial expressions”.

The ultimate goal of workplace monitoring  is to create employees who are as on task as automatons.

Of course, some workers will find it to get used to idea of being monitored every second of the working day. If you’re forgetful and log on to Facebook or check a TradeMe auction, it might be a good idea to install monitoring software on your home network so you can get used to idea of being watched all the time.

It’s also a great way to keep an eye on what the kids are doing online and prepare them for their future workplaces.


This article is from the December 2012 issue of the PSA Journal. You can read back issues of the Journal by clicking here.