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No Days Off

Workplace surveillance goes mobile

Recently, a series of internal Amazon documents revealed that, true-to-form, the tech giant’s Draconian warehouse kingdom is infused with meticulous surveillance of its wage workers. Using radio-frequency handheld scanners, Amazon tracks every minute of what they call “time off task”: a brazen quantification of personal time and attention. If an Amazon warehouse worker accrues thirty minutes of time off task on a given day—say, by using the bathroom or talking to their coworkers—they’re given a written warning that puts them on the road to termination after just two subsequent warnings within a one-year period. (In 2021, the company claimed they would begin averaging time off task “over a longer period,” but details were predictably scant.) Time off task is depicted as the villain of the orderly and efficient workplace. The phrase itself invokes delinquency, connoting a failure to comply with rules or a failure to be a loyal worker.

Time off task is a perverse little metric; a product of run-amok capitalism’s fetishization of productivity, efficiency, and other quantifications. It’s the kind of policy that was only a dream for burgeoning companies of the industrial revolution, as they clawed for more time and yield from laborers. Now though, calculating time off task can be fully realized by using the right technologies to scrupulously track workers. For Amazon, those handheld scanners are the perfect gadgets to facilitate workplace surveillance because they are essential tools that are built into the infrastructure of the work itself: the workers must use them to scan packages. The scanners are also, conveniently, extensions of workers’ physical bodies, making the data they collect a reliable depiction of physical locations and movements—or inactivity.

It’s dangerous to mix surveillance technology with a disdain for personal time that metrics like time off task represent. If companies can successfully systematize tracking technologies as standard parts of workers’ lives, then they can win the battle against personal, unproductive, and unaccounted-for time. Many companies are thirsty to be omnipresent in workers’ lives because of the extra labor and the profitable data that can be squeezed out of people through surveillance. It would be a mistake to assume that this desire to destroy and exploit personal time ends at the doors of the workplace: employer surveillance is becoming more and more decentralized, spreading its voyeurism through both the body and the home.

Technological incentives are a new adversary in the long history of workers trying to keep the tentacles of corporate America out of their personal lives. But unlike the precipitating causes of the bloody 1886 Haymarket Riot, where Chicago workers protested the blatant incursion of longer working hours despite their legal entitlement to an eight-hour workday, modern employer surveillance is restructuring the lives of workers in gradual and nearly imperceptible ways. The lines of what is work and what is life in the consecrated “work-life balance” are blurring because of the way surveillance technologies are proliferating. What began in the workplace is leaking its bile across your lap as you sit at home.

It would be a mistake to assume that this desire to destroy and exploit personal time ends at the doors of the workplace.

From the moment you’re being considered for a job, before you’re even hired, the eyes and ears of the corporate surveillance apparatus are examining you. And the implements of employer surveillance are often combined with artificial intelligence capabilities to produce faster and more elaborate insights from collected data. In hiring, this might come in the form of AI that analyzes your tone and other verbal cues to determine how “ideal” a candidate you are. For a notable period, the AI vendor HireVue was even using facial recognition AI to monitor expressions, grimaces, and other details of applicants’ faces during interviews to help determine their suitability for a job. The company’s reason for stopping visual analysis was not some noble display of corporate conscience (though HireVue CEO Kevin Parker claimed they’d taken criticism of the tool into account), but because they determined using non-visual, verbal data instead was even more powerful. According to research conducted by the Society for Human Resource Management, already about a quarter of organizations, and growing, leverage AI in their recruitment and hiring processes, with over 83 percent using some form of AI across their human resource processes. These AI applications are fed data that is extracted from workers’ (or in this case, prospective workers’) behaviors. Biometric data is collected immediately as a potential worker enters the employer-employee relationship.

Then comes the elaborate set of technologies that are used in the setting where employer surveillance first began: the physical workplace. Several years ago, employees of the UK’s Daily Telegraph protested a device that the company had installed to the underside of every desk called “OccupEye” that could track when people were seated. Management justified the installation by saying that it was to monitor energy efficiency in the office, but employees quickly learned that the devices were being used to measure and track worker attendance. After public opposition and union pressure, the devices were removed. But these kinds of sensing devices are still actively marketed and sold, representing just one tool that employers use to surveil workspaces.

The physical workplace may be where employer surveillance started, but it’s not where it ends. The days of surveillance being technologically limited to physical spaces and analog tools like building cameras are slipping away. In their place are more accurate and ubiquitous technologies that run on hardware that employees already use, like computers and phones. And as more employees do their work outside of physical offices, the employer surveillance apparatus has mutated to keep them ensnared. The forecast is that soon at least 70 percent of companies will be using software that tracks worker productivity via their computers. This tracking might include keylogging, location tracking, web and email monitoring, or even in some cases, taking images of workers through their webcams at random intervals throughout the day. The expansion of these tracking technologies was another flare-up that the Covid-19 pandemic exacerbated, and the logics of tracking that were established for remote work are here to stay. “Here,” in this case, meaning the home office, the living room, or any personal space where one uses digital devices.

Workers have more to fear than having a webcam photo taken while double-chin slouched over at the kitchen table. Monitoring employees has also gone fully mobile. Smart phone apps on both personal and company issued phones can track location and usage to infer productivity. A 2012 study by the Aberdeen Group research firm found that 62 percent of companies with “field employees” were already using GPS or other means to track them. This has undoubtedly compounded with the expansion of the gig economy, where the work functions under an innate logic of GPS-tracking various goods and services via apps. There have been a myriad of lawsuits based on companies using their employees’ phones to access their location information 24/7, putting the lives of workers on full display both within and outside of working hours. But new tracking technologies have become less noticeably invasive, enabling companies to normalize their use. What would have required elaborate surveillance apparatuses in prior decades now can be done with innocuous tools like a phone app, or in many cases a smartwatch or wristband.

New tracking technologies have become less noticeably invasive, enabling companies to normalize their use.

Being tracked is continually normalized by companies using the guise of safety, efficiency, or health. Scholars sometimes refer to this as “participatory surveillance,” and much of employer surveillance has shifted to this model. Workplace wellness programs are one of the easiest ways for corporate America to get its greasy paws on behavioral data. Many employers and insurers have wellness kickback programs that give money in exchange for biometric data from wearable devices. It can be tempting to trade one’s data for a $20 Panera gift card, but people are often unaware of how this information can be used. As technology law scholar Dr. Ifeoma Ajunwa suggests, since wearable devices are adept at tracking health and medical data, employers could easily use this data to monitor exercise routines, sleep patterns, dietary habits, or other activities that occur during non-working hours to determine employee benefits or compensation. Moreover, current data privacy laws appear woefully inadequate for protecting data from wearables and can even contain exceptions that benefit employers. These carve-outs are tantamount to an ironic shrug of the shoulders, dooming any meaningful privacy protections for workers.  

Foucault might describe these data-sucking devices latched onto our skin as an extension of what he calls “docile bodies”—a receptive arrangement of the body that makes it an object for applications of power. Smartwatches, tracking apps, and other bodily augmentations seem to enable this arrangement, helping to encode disciplined behaviors into workers. These devices open new channels for employers to learn intimate knowledge and exercise power over employees. This power asymmetry has always existed but is now armed with better surveillance tools, and it means that workers are often obliged to accept the terms they’re given by employers, even if those terms are wrought with the mechanisms of surveillance and the beady eyes of middle management.

So if surveillance technology continues to advance, and employers are increasingly urged to adopt infernal devices like EEG headsets that can read brain data, what shards of “life” will remain in the work-life balance? The employer surveillance regime that aspires to the “future of work” will deliver more than just changes to work; it might eclipse the entire human future.