There's been a big rise in monitoring workers at home. We should all be worried

More companies are turning to remote monitoring tools to keep tabs on their employees while working from home.
Written by Owen Hughes, Senior Editor

Prospect has called for tougher rules around the use of remote monitoring software by employers, after a surge in the technology's use during the pandemic.

Image: Andrzej Wojcicki / Getty

A UK trade union is calling for the introduction of measures to protect employees from "intrusive monitoring" after polling suggested that one in three UK workers are being monitored by their employer -- including in their own homes.

Prospect, a 150,000-member trade union for professionals working in technology, engineering, management, civil service and various other industries, said it was concerned that the increase in organizations using surveillance technologies to monitor workers was going unchecked and taking place without the consent of employees.

According to data from a poll of more than 2,400 UK workers conducted by Opinium, 32% are now being monitored in some form by their employers -- up from 24% in April 2021.

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The use of camera technology to surveil people working from home has also doubled, the data suggested: 13% of home workers are currently being monitored by cameras compared to 5% six months ago.

Prospect said monitoring was particularly likely to affect workers in sectors with "higher levels of remote working, larger proportions of younger workers, and low levels of trade union membership" -- which included tech workers.

Younger workers are significantly more likely to be surveilled than older colleagues, the polling indicated: nearly half (48%) of respondents aged 18-34 said they were monitored at work, including 20% who reported having their activity tracked through a camera.

Chi Onwurah, shadow digital minister of the UK's Labour Party, called the findings "deeply worrying" and called for more robust laws to protect the privacy of employees, particularly those who worked from home.

"New technology allows employers to have a constant window into their employees' homes, and the use of the technology is largely unregulated by government," said Onwurah.

"We think that we need to upgrade the law to protect the privacy of workers and set reasonable limits on the use of this snooping technology, and the public overwhelmingly agree with us."

Is big brother watching you?

The overnight introduction of remote working in early 2020 created both technical and managerial challenges for businesses, who suddenly found themselves having to effectively coordinate teams from a distance.

As some companies looked to technical solutions to help them maintain productivity, remote monitoring services – which offer a variety of software-based tools allowing administrators to track employees' online activity – have seen an uptick in adoption.

As well as the ethical questions of monitoring employees in their own homes, concerns have been raised that workers are not being properly consulted before such technologies are introduced -- potentially breaching GDPR policy.

Privacy advocates are also worried that remote monitoring software is being introduced more quickly than policies and laws to govern its use. "Technology has undoubtedly kept many of us safe, connected and working during the pandemic, but there is now a mission creep in its purpose," Andrew Pakes, Prospect deputy general secretary, told ZDNet.

"We need to challenge the rise of creepy tech and ensure that digital technology works for us, not the other way around."

SEE: More bosses are using software to monitor remote workers. Not everyone is happy

Employees themselves are, perhaps unsurprisingly, largely against the use of remote monitoring and surveillance software.

Eighty per cent of workers polled said the use of webcams to monitor employees should either be heavily regulated (28%) or banned outright (52%), while just 8% believed employers should have autonomy over when they can use cameras to monitor workers at home.

Prospect has called on the Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) -- which is currently reviewing employer guidance on new workplace technologies -- to ensure workers get a say in their introduction and ensure full transparency in the way said technologies are used, including the type of data that might be gathered by employers.

The union is also calling on the UK government to make it illegal for employers to use webcams to monitor people in their homes or check up on workers outside of meetings and calls.

The union has launched a new sector for tech workers that it said will "put the issue of surveillance front and centre," alongside other issues like discrimination, long hours culture, and pay.

"We are bringing together existing members across digital and tech in a new sector to help create a strong voice together and to reach out to new tech workers who want to get involved, organise and shape the future of the industry," said Pakes.

"Long hours culture, pay transparency, career progression, diversity and the rise of unethical tech are all issues on our agenda, and we are looking to support members in building a new union home to engage industry and influence change."

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