- When employees started to work remotely because of the coronavirus pandemic, the number of companies using bossware increased.
- In some cases, workers may not be fully aware of just how much data they are sharing with their employers.
- Privacy advocates and some workers are worried that intensified tracking will normalize extreme workplace surveillance and digital supervision.
A software called Hubstaff tracks employees’ mouse movements and keyboard strokes, and records the webpages they visit.
An app called TSheets keeps tabs on workers’ whereabouts via their cellphone during work hours.
Clearview AI, a controversial facial recognition company that scans public images from social media to aid law enforcement probes, might also be used by employers in future to monitor employees even more closely.
A software called Time Doctor downloads videos of employees’ screens while they work, and can also enable a computer’s webcam to take a picture of the employee every 10 minutes.
Upwork entices millions of freelancers to use its platform with the promise of autonomy and flexibility, but requires many of those gig workers to use its Work Diary software that, among other things, counts key strokes and screenshots for clients.
While some employers may believe that tracking software improves their team’s productivity and efficiency, it might be a breach of privacy as well as be generally unethical.
What is bossware?
Workers may not be aware of just how much data they are sharing. Remote and hybrid workers are more susceptible than ever to cyberattacks and hackers breaching their data and privacy, but what about their own bosses accessing their data?
The pandemic has led to about a third of U.S. workers remotely working. In turn, companies are ramping up the use of bossware to monitor what their employees do in the workday.
These monitoring software products have the ability to take frequent screenshots of workers’ devices, which allows bosses to go back through a worker’s day and see what they were doing at any given point.
Several products also act as a keylogger, which records every keystroke a worker makes, including unsent emails and private passwords.
A couple of bossware products even let administrators jump in and take over remote control of a user’s desktop.
These products usually don’t distinguish between work-related activity and personal account credentials, bank data, or medical information, according to the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
Brad Miller, who runs the Connecticut-based company Awareness Technologies, said, “If you’re not working or doing something wrong, then I guess it will tattle on you, but I don’t think that’s really how companies that are buying [the software] think of it as.”
So why are companies using this software?
Employers say productivity monitoring.
The software creators and employers claim that collecting information about every second of a worker’s day is beneficial for bosses and helps the workers too.
“The irony of it is [productivity monitoring software] is going to lead to less productivity, because there’s less trust…it creates more resentment,” said Josh Davies, CEO at the Center for Work Ethic Development.
Does bossware breach workers’ privacy?
Most bossware collects everything that the user does online on their computer or phone.
Privacy advocates and some workers are worried that intensified tracking will normalize extreme workplace surveillance and digital supervision.
Many workers might find that it’s not worth it to sacrifice their personal privacy and data just for a paycheck.
The majority of companies that create visible monitoring software also make invisible bossware. Teramind, Time Doctor, StaffCop, and others are designed to be extremely difficult to detect and remove.
At a technical level, these products are indistinguishable from stalkerware.
Data privacy is important for workers
If a company provides computers for employee use, the issue of data privacy needs to be addressed, especially if the employees use their work computer in their home.
As remote working continues to be the norm for many, some questions need to be raised about work computers:
- Is bossware installed on the computer or device? Is it visible or invisible?
- What is allowed to be conducted on the computer?
- What exactly is being monitored?
- Are personal passwords, emails, and other private information at risk of being seen by their company/boss?
Can workers do anything to protect their privacy?
There is great potential for misuse of this type of software by employers.
The law varies over whether companies have to tell workers whether they’re using tracking software. Some states do not require that workers be notified first.
There aren’t many legal protections for employees who are being monitored. Bossware might be intrusive, but it is legal.
Advice for workers:
- Workers who are concerned about the possibility of being monitored by this type of software should assume that any employer-provided device is tracking them.
- Workers should have the right to know what exactly their managers are collecting and should ask them directly.
- Workers need a private right of action so that they can sue employers that violate these statutory privacy protections.
Advice for companies:
- Employers should be aware that implementing bossware will not foster a flexible or comfortable work environment for their employees.
- Companies that have adopted bossware should consider what their goals are and should try to accomplish them in less-intrusive ways.
Constant monitoring in the workplace can stifle creativity, diminish trust, and contribute to employee burnout.