Big Brother Bosses - should you be worried?

Big Brother Bosses - should you be worried?

Imagine you’re using a computer. Someone else installed software on it, and uses it to track your keystrokes, learn your password and access your personal email account.

They read through years of your personal messages, gathering information to use against you.

If you discovered this was happening, you’d call the police. But what if the person who did this to you is your employer?

It’s not hypothetical. It happened right here in New Zealand in 2012. Electronic surveillance of employees is increasingly common, and it should worry you.


During the 2020 lockdown sales of employee surveillance software skyrocketed up 300 per cent.

There are many different programmes available, but most share common features. After your employer installs them on the computer or phone you use for work, they can track when you sign in and log out.

They track when you type, what you type, how long you pause between typing, when you move your mouse, and how often you send emails.

They take screenshots of whatever is on your screen at a given moment and send it to your boss.

They provide your employer with “productivity metrics”, ranking your performance against your fellow workers.

Some programmes allow your boss to seize control of the computer you’re using and access anything on it.

But for all their popularity with employers, it’s not clear surveillance software can accurately assess performance.


Research shows an atmosphere of mistrust leads to lower productivity, and this aligns with a warning issued by Employment New Zealand:

“Intrusion into an employee's privacy creates a suspicious atmosphere, lowers morale and can cause pressure and stress.”

Employers who can’t motivate staff without surveillance and intimidation are not particularly creative thinkers.

A better approach is to inspire people to do their best in a high trust environment.

Consider this recent example. In one government agency, call centre employees were told to limit each phone call to six minutes max. Call handling time was monitored, and if you took longer than that to hang up you could get in trouble 

In practice this meant when New Zealanders called to ask for help they sometimes got bounced between multiple people before their problem was resolved.

It was frustrating for both staff and clients, so union members pushed for change. Eventually, the employer reviewed their processes and realised this call time limit did not save time at all.

New policies were introduced that gave workers leeway to determine how to help clients, and it delivered results.


A Code of Practice developed by the International Labour Organisation offers wide-ranging recommendations on how to protect workers’ personal data.

It’s time for our union movement, the Privacy Commission and employers to sit down and develop our own code of practice to protect New Zealand workers’ rights to privacy.

 Nā PSA national secretary Erin Polaczuk

An extended version of this article was first published on

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