How do You Feel about Your Boss Snooping on You?

The rise of technology has led to growing concern over surveillance in the workplace. Monitoring employee productivity is not a new trend, but tech has given new breath to Orwellian skepticism about who is watching and listening – and to what extent.

In many cases, surveillance policies are addressed in the onboarding process, but it’s important to be aware of the basic legalities and modern trends involved.

Workplace Privacy: Legal Basics

In the U.S., The Federal Privacy Act and Electronic Communication Privacy Act each address privacy rights at large, but there are no federal laws which explicitly regulate private employers on workplace surveillance. The Society of Human Resource Management offers a comprehensive breakdown of state laws, many of which address employee monitoring.

FindLaw offers some basic guidelines for the surveillance of internet use, emails, and phone calls:

  • Internet – Employees should expect employers to track what websites they visit, as well as company emails. In addition, employers may limit or outright ban access to certain websites.
  • Personal Email – Employers’ rights are not as broad for monitoring personal emails. If employers specifically say that personal emails will be confidential or private, they must abide by that.
  • Phone Calls – This is the most protected form of communication. It’s pretty standard for employers to monitor customer calls for quality assurance, but they are generally not allowed to monitor personal calls.

Surveillance Technology

Beyond “just” monitoring internet use, emails, and phone calls in a broad sense, third party surveillance technology providers can help companies monitor texts, keystrokes, and social media to hone in on specific metrics of productivity.

Brad Miller, CEO of Awareness Technologies, which sells a brand of employee monitoring tools called Interguard, explained how these metrics are useful: “If it’s normal for you to send out 10 emails, type 5,000 keystrokes and be active on a computer for three hours a day, if all of a sudden you are only active for one hour or typing 1,000 keystrokes, there seems to be a dip in productivity,” said Miller

Sometimes, these capabilities are used for more than just tracking productivity.

For instance, Wiretap hones in on workplace chat platforms, like Slack, and looks out for harassment, threats, and other inappropriate behavior. Two years ago, an employee at an IT company sent a private text message to a friend worried that he had shared his sexual identity with his boss, and that he would experience professional backlash, according to the Guardian US. Wiretap was able to alert a senior company exec and diffuse the situation.

Remote Employees

Remote work opportunities are said to boost productivity, but some employers have taken extra steps to properly monitor out-of-office employees.

Crossover, a talent management company, takes pictures of its remote workers every 10 minutes through their webcam using a productivity tool called WorkSmart. But if that weren’t enough, WorkSmart combines those pictures with data on application use and keystrokes to generate a “focus score” and “intensity score” – ensuring remote workers and freelancers are staying productive.

Sanjeev Patni, VP of Crossover, said that employees get over the initial discomfort of being monitored, and recognize that it’s for their “betterment.” The Guardian US notes that such “betterment” doesn’t apply to managers at Crossover, who can choose when to turn their cameras on.

Overseas Account

The Trades Union Congress (TUC), a collection of 48 member unions and 5.5 million workers in the United Kingdom, recently published a report on surveillance in the workforce. Of the roughly 2,100 workers that responded to the report’s survey, 56% believe it’s likely they are being monitored at work, and 66% are concerned that surveillance could be used in a discriminatory way if left unchecked.

Employees found more invasive forms of surveillance – such as facial recognition software and monitoring social media – to be most unacceptable. On the other hand, it was easier for them to justify more traditional initiatives, such as bag checks and monitoring calls and emails, and even keystroke logging software.

Of course, employees are rationalizing specific surveillance methods based on their jobs. According to one call center worker: “I had a [previous] job where I had to handle lots of money and obviously they had bag searches then. I’d be annoyed if they introduced it where I work now though because there’s no reason to do so.”

Finally, employees found it unfair if some folks were monitored, and others were not. Similar to the inconsistency at Crossover, one engineer in the energy sector noted that junior employees were unfairly monitored far more than senior staff.

Microchips: Future Privacy Concerns

Earlier this year, we wrote about companies encouraging their employees to be planted with a near-field communication microchips under their skin. Using radio frequencies, these microchips would allow employees to interact with other “tagged” objects – so they can, for instance, access their building, log onto a computer, and purchase food from the cafeteria – all with a wave of their hand. Today’s chips can’t be tracked, but proponents and critics alike acknowledge that they could have tracking capabilities in the future.


With so much new technologies granting surveillance capabilities that aren’t explicitly covered by law, employees shouldn’t be afraid to communicate with employers directly regarding privacy issues. It benefits both employers and employees for specific policies to be loud and clear. In most companies, both parties want the same thing – to maximize productivity and protect sensitive organizational and personal information.

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