From Microchips To ‘Mouse Jigglers’, Workplace Surveillance Is On The Rise

For decades, companies have kept an eye on their workers, but now more workers in more industries are subject to workplace tracking and not everyone is on board.

The utilization of technology to monitor employee productivity isn’t new for many fields. In lower paying, hourly jobs, tracking employees has been normal behavior for quite some time.

For example, grocery cashiers at Kroger, UPS drivers, and Amazon factory workers have all experienced tracking. Now, higher-paying, white collar jobs are starting to implement it and employees aren’t happy.

One former Amazon delivery driver discussed what he experienced in a YouTube video, claiming he “pee[d] in bottles,” and “a lot of people did — most people did, even the girls.”

He said while it’s “kind of normal sometimes for some delivery companies … it’s kind of a necessity with Amazon. You are under extreme time crunch and if you don’t find shortcuts you will have a very bad day. And so that’s one of those shortcuts.”

The act of tracking workers has been around for decades. A study from 2001 by the American Management Association found that almost 80% of major businesses tracked their workers’ actions.

The Daily Wire spoke to Chase Thiel, an assistant professor at the University of Wyoming and an expert in business ethics. He said Microsoft can monitor workers’ movements and even their heart rate while they work.

“Microsoft allows employees — they can wear a smartwatch and then it’s got this app on it. [That] collects these biometrics, like heart rates, et cetera. And it can give employees a wellness score and I don’t know how frequently it gives them this wellness score, but it kind of collects information about the employee,” he said.

One tech company, Three Square Market, even put microchips the size of a grain of rice into some of its workers in 2017. The chips essentially were supposed to operate like a badge and were set up to let them open secure doors, log into computers, and unlock the copy machine.

Thiel called it “very extreme” and said he hasn’t “heard of another example of a company doing something like that, but … it gives you an illustration of what kinds of technology exists.”

There has been an increase in monitoring within certain physician jobs, academic officials, architects, and even people who work in nursing homes.

In one case, The New York Times highlighted radiologists. Some radiologists were shown reports of their periods of inactivity and also given insight into how their work compares to their coworkers.

More tragic examples have been shared by hospice workers. Hospice chaplains come alongside people who are nearing death. They, too, had to earn “productivity points” in some situations. For example, visiting one dying person earns just one point, possibly pushing them to hurry through their time with people who are at the end of their lives.

Workers in higher paying jobs now complain about this in much the way workers in blue collar jobs have spoken out against it in the past. Some told The Times that the monitoring is “demoralizing,” “humiliating” and “toxic.” Sometimes they don’t even have a chance to go to the bathroom.

J.P. Morgan also measures how its workers use their time during their workdays with a software called “Workplace Activity Data Utility.” It tracks their time on Zoom calls, when they’re in the office, and how much time they use certain applications.

Barclays Bank used to send messages to employees that would push them to work harder. One example was a message that said, “Not enough time in the Zone yesterday,” but they abandoned the practice after backlash.

With the rise of remote work, the practice could be useful and simply unavoidable. Employers can hypothetically keep better track of people who aren’t working in the office.

However, it’s not entirely obvious if this practice of intense monitoring is even effective.

Research by the Harvard Business Review showed that workers who were monitored were much more likely to break rules, work slowly on purpose, take breaks that weren’t allowed and even steal office items. They did another study that showed workers who were told they were being tracked were more likely to cheat when completing assignments. There’s evidence of this. 

Advice on how to trick the trackers can be found on TikTok. One way is with a “mouse jiggler,” which makes it look like someone is active.

The legal side is another component. In lots of states, employers basically have free rein to decide how to use these programs to watch their employees.

Thiel explained the Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986, saying, “as long as there’s a business necessity or … an employer can demonstrate a business necessity, they have the right to monitor employees in a variety of ways.”

New York’s new law that started this year invoked new requirements on private employers that makes them tell employees they are electronically tracking them. Connecticut and Delaware also put laws in place that have to do with watching employees, but attempts to create similar legislation in California stopped going anywhere because business groups pushed back on it, saying it was a “job killer.” CalChamber, a business advocacy group said the California bill would actually decrease workers’ privacy because it would make employers look at all of a workers’ communications to see if the employer is allowed to keep or look at that information. They also said it would eliminate small businesses “for even a good faith mistake due to its excessively punitive enforcement mechanisms.”

As for Amazon, the company did loosen some of its tracking rules. Employees are still monitored but now managers aren’t supposed to examine idle time unless it’s longer than 15 minutes.

Personal data is stored with companies in ways Americans often aren’t even fully aware of. Lawmakers and citizens are starting to raise the alarm on how such tracking might be dangerous when it comes to national security. The discontent with employee tracking might be playing into a broader discomfort with being watched.

The New York Times reported last year on workplace monitoring, but the article was interactive, meaning that users reading the report were also being tracked and told about their performance as they went along.

It demonstrates how tracking practices by companies can hinder worker morale. As someone reads the report, the Times site literally tracks him or her and reports how long he or she has been idle. It also tells the readers if their status is “Active” or “Idle” and it gives them a score at the end when they finish reading. It also produces little warnings and asks “Hello?” if the cursor hasn’t moved on the article in a while.

I found myself clicking over on it while I was researching. Even I, working on this report, didn’t want to get a bad grade. It was anxiety-inducing to watch the “idle” status come up and know that I was being monitored for my productivity. It shows readers how distracting and stressful this kind of tracking can be, and how it can be a hindrance rather than a help.

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