Author Topic: Employers are monitoring computers, toilet breaks even emotions. Part 01  (Read 204 times)

Md. Anikuzzaman

  • Sr. Member
  • ****
  • Posts: 354
Last year an American company microchipped dozens of its workers. In a “chip party” that made headlines around the world, employees lined up to have a device the size of a grain of rice implanted under the skin between their thumb and forefinger. At first, Todd Westby, the CEO of Three Square Market, thought only about five or six people – him and a couple of directors, some of the people who worked in the IT department – would volunteer. But of the 90 people who work at the headquarters, 72 are now chipped; Westby has a chip in each hand. They can be used to open security doors, log on to computers and make payments at the company’s vending machines.

Can he see it taking off at lots of other companies? “Not necessarily,” he says. Or at least not yet. It’s partly a generational thing, he believes. “You may never want to be chipped but if you’re a millennial, you have no problems. They think it’s cool.” There are other uses for it – two months ago, the company (whose core business is selling vending machines and kiosks) started chipping people with dementia in Puerto Rico. If someone wanders off and gets lost, police can scan the chip “and they will know all their medical information, what drugs they can and can’t have, they’ll know their identity.” So far, Three Square Market has chipped 100 people, but plans to do 10,000.

The company has just launched a mobile phone app that pairs the chip with the phone’s GPS, enabling the implantee’s location to be tracked. Last week, it started using it with people released from prison on probation, as a replacement for ankle tags, which Westby describes as “intimidating and degrading”. Could he ever see the company using GPS to track its chipped employees? “No,” he says. “There’s no reason to.”

Tony Danna, vice-president at Three Square Market, gets his microchip implant. Photograph: Jeff Baenen/AP
Not all firms would agree. Tech companies are coming up with ever more bizarre and intrusive ways to monitor workforces. Last week the Times reported that some Chinese companies are using sensors in helmets and hats to scan workers’ brainwaves and detect fatigue, stress and even emotions such as anger. It added that one electrical company uses brainwave scans to decide how many breaks workers get, and for how long. The technology is used on high-speed train drivers to “detect fatigue and attention loss”. While this sort of technology may have legitimate safety applications – a similar project was carried out with Crossrail workers using wristbands that sensed fatigue – it’s not hard to see how it could creep into other areas.

In February, it was reported that Amazon had been granted patents for a wristband that not only tracked workers’ locations in the warehouse as they “picked” items to be dispatched, but could “read” their hand movements, buzzing or emitting a pulse to alert them when they were reaching for the wrong item. In the filing, Amazon describes it as being able to “monitor performance of the placing of the incoming inventory item into the identified storage location by the inventory system worker”.

There are tech companies selling products that can take regular screenshots of employees’ work, monitor keystrokes and web usage, and even photograph them at their desks using their computers’ webcams. Working from home offers no protection, as all this can be done remotely. Software can monitor social media usage, analyse language or be installed on employees’ phones to monitor encrypted apps such as WhatsApp. Employees can be fitted with badges that not only track their location, but also monitor their tone of voice, how often they speak in meetings and who they speak to and for how long.

Employees have always been watched at work, and technology has always been used to do it. But where it was once a factory foreman with a stopwatch, or workers having to physically clock in and out, now “all of that physical stuff has gone into digital technology”, says André Spicer, professor of organisational behavior at Cass Business School. “It captures things that you weren’t able to capture in the past, like how many keystrokes are people taking, what are they looking at on their screen while they’re at work, what kind of language are they using. And surveillance follows you outside the workplace now.”

How much of this is legal? In the UK, employers are allowed to monitor which websites you look at while at work, says Philip Landau, a partner at Landau Law Solicitors who specialises in employment law. “However, the device they monitor must be partly or wholly provided by work. Employers must also give prior warning if they are going to monitor your online activity, and should make you aware of the relevant social media policy.” It is also legal to monitor keystrokes, though again employees must be told they will be watched. “In companies where this system is in place, it is not uncommon for employers to speak to employees if they feel that their number of keystrokes is low,” says Landau. “It is worth noting that a high number of keystrokes does not necessarily mean high levels of productivity and vice versa.”

Employers could theoretically use your computer’s webcam to see when you’re at your desk but “there should be a justification for such monitoring, and you should be informed of it beforehand. You should also be informed what the pictures will be used for, and how they will be stored.” As for GPS tracking, “a company may track any vehicles that they supply to their staff. However, the data they collect must only be used for the management purposes of the company. Any GPS device is not allowed to be turned on if the employee is using the vehicle for personal reasons outside of work.”

James Bloodworth spent a month working as a “picker” – the person who locates the products ordered – for Amazon in March 2016 for his book Hired: Six Months Undercover in Low-Wage Britain. “We carried this handheld device at all times and it tracks your productivity,” he says. It would direct workers to the items they need to find on the shelves in one of Amazon’s vast warehouses. “Each time you picked up an item, there would be this countdown timer [to get to the next item] which would measure your productivity.” Bloodworth says supervisors would tell people how productive they were being; he was warned he was in the bottom 10%. “You were also sent admonishments through the device saying you need to get your productivity up. You’re constantly tracked and rated. I found you couldn’t keep up with the productivity targets without running – yet you were also told you weren’t allowed to run, and if you did, you’d get a disciplinary. But if you fell behind in productivity, you’d get a disciplinary for that as well.” It didn’t feel, he says, “that you were really treated as a human being”. Workers had to go through airport-style security scanners at the beginning and end of their shifts, or to get to the break areas. He says going to the loo was described as “idle time” and once found a bottle of urine on one of the shelves.

To Be Continued...