Spyware: The Secret Work From Home Surveillance Scandal


Tech Insights for ProfessionalsThe latest thought leadership for IT pros

Tuesday, April 13, 2021

With working from home growing exponentially in the last year, are businesses taking the right approach to ensuring staff are staying productive?

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Spyware: The Secret Work From Home Surveillance Scandal
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Before 2020, working from home was something a minority of employees did, often for only part of the week. Fast-forward to the outbreak of a global pandemic, and suddenly '#WFH' was no longer a choice. For many nations it was compulsory as COVID-19 swept across the globe and limited all but essential travel.

Businesses had to quickly put in place remote working solutions, with a global study by Gartner revealing that 88% of organizations had either mandated or encouraged their employees to work from home as the virus started to spread in spring last year.

A new world order

For both employers and employees, this was a revelation. There was freedom from the daily commute, along with the realization that there would be no more chats around the water cooler for the foreseeable future. There was the novelty, too, of people scheduling their own work days away from the confines of workplaces and designated lunch hours.

Meanwhile, managers found themselves having to apply new tools to ensure tasks could be carried out away from the office, including closed messaging groups to continue communication among co-workers, performance tracking apps and document sharing techniques.

Some of these tools also revolved around 'checking in', as bosses - perhaps understandably - wanted to ensure they could see their employees were still showing up on time for their jobs as they would have done before.

Others might also have been put in place to prevent future lawsuits surrounding potential cyber attacks, for instance, or for protection against the loss of intellectual property should items like client lists become compromised.

After all, if a member of staff is using their employer's computer and systems, their employer is likely to need to retain some sort of checks on what they’re doing.

Keeping much closer tabs

However, increasing evidence has arisen that employers are now doing more than simply protecting their assets and 'checking clocking in cards' when it comes to monitoring their workers.

With most laws (especially federal laws) not directly addressing the legal ins and outs of employee monitoring, it seems some businesses are trying to slip in ever-more stealthy ways of making sure their staff aren't taking advantage of #WFH.

David Heinemeier Hansson from the software platform Basecamp recently told Britain's Guardian newspaper that he’s been fielding "a depressing amount of demand" from bosses seeking new ways of spying on their employees, particularly from less technologically savvy companies.

The data would appear to back up this anecdotal evidence, with various surveys showing soaring demand for employee monitoring software like Time Doctor, ActivTrak and Teramind.

At their most basic levels, they can perform simple tasks such as blocking certain web pages or setting screensaver timeouts to monitor time spent active at a computer.

However, they offer an array of more invasive features such as:

  • Live video feeds of employee workstations (taken without their knowledge)
  • Keystroke logs
  • Keyword monitoring
  • Logs of instant messaging communications
  • Geofencing alerts (to tell employers when devices have been taken away from the employee's home address)
  • Complete takeover of desktop and mobile devices

Potential repercussions

The fact that much of this internal spyware is undetectable arguably has sinister undertones. Effectively, many companies might be infecting their employees' computers and other devices with malware that works like a virus.

What would happen, for example, if companies had access to bank details and every password their employees had ever used in their personal life? What if someone at the company decided to use them, or if they were somehow leaked to a malicious party outside the organization?

Even with WhatsApp conversations, someone with negative intentions might have all they need to wreak havoc on an employee's life.

It isn't just 'dinosaur companies' doing this, either. City AM recently reported that Barclays bank was among those recording staff activity and admonishing them if they weren’t spending enough time at their workstations.

A whistleblower told the publication this "shows an utter disregard for employee wellbeing" and that "the stress this is causing is beyond belief", although the scheme was eventually scrapped.

A backlash from employees

Signs have already emerged that workers aren't prepared to take this kind of spying lying down. Although almost everyone has joked about being able to work in their PJs and watch Netflix on company time, the truth is that the majority will just want to do their jobs and won't appreciate being suspected of laziness.

In fact, the opposite may actually be true. In a roundup of statistics by Review 24, 79% of workers told KPMG American Worker their quality of work has actually improved at home, while 70% said they’re more productive. Furthermore, a third of remote workers told Airtasker they stay this way by taking regular breaks.

To get around the impression of bosses breathing down their necks, employees are unfortunately feeling as though they need to be equally crafty. Wired reports increasing downloads of programs that create fake mouse movements for when they take breaks, or systems that can ring-fence their work from the rest of their computer.

The American Genius points out there’s a piece of software to set Slack to permanently active, as well as the hack to keep its status as 'away' even during work time so there’s never any difference.

Threads on Reddit have even suggested attaching a computer mouse to a desk fan or putting something heavy on the keyboard to keep it live - although this might imply that these workers are indeed spending longer periods of time away from their desks.

A new understanding of trust?

Adrian Wakeling of the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service told Wired he thinks the main issue in this #WFH debacle is trust and its breakdown during what’s essentially a brand new experiment in the way we work.

"We argue that we need a new collective psychological contract between employer and employee that spells out behaviors and values, which are so different now," he commented.

Employment lawyer Tom Spiggle pointed out in an article for Forbes that employees aren’t robots even when in the office, so they shouldn't be expected to work every second of every day at home. Furthermore, he argued that since they may now be picking up work-related emails late at night, they could also expect to be given the right to pop out for half an hour during the day to run an essential errand.

"Employers who don't accept this reality (to a reasonable extent) may find themselves with unhappy workers," he added.

After all, as long as the work is getting done and productivity is still high, does it really matter when employees are at their desks?

Towards a better future

Having seen how effectively the world can work out of the office, many companies are likely to continue their remote work offerings even after the pandemic. As a result, rather than undercover spying, managers will need to take a more collaborative approach if they’re to manage their teams yet also avoid breaking down trust and even driving staff away in the long term.

In the meantime, employee surveillance is sure to remain an interesting topic for discussion in workplaces across the globe.

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