Privacy experts sound alarm over how employers track remote workers

Del Currie co-founded the remote-working software company Sneek at the end of 2016 but saw his number of clients quadruple during the pandemic.

"Things cranked up a fair bit as companies started working from home," Currie said.

Sneek creates a digital office by taking webcam snapshots — updated every minute — of every employee on a team while they work from home and then posting them all to the same screen, from which users can then click on these selfies to summon a coworker on live video whenever they need.

"The bossman has the exact same experience as the whole team," Currie said. 

Sneek allows users to turn off or pixelate those automatic, once-a-minute selfies. It neither logs nor tracks any participant's activity, nor issues any manager a regular report on their charges. But other so-called tattleware offers all those things and more.

"Where they're taking screenshots of people's computers, they're tracking your keystrokes and mouse usage," Currie said.

Surveillance Technology Oversight Project Executive Director Albert Fox Cahn called it the "Stuff of nightmares." 

"It's tracking employees inside their own homes," he said. 

Fox Cahn sees workforce analytics software like ActivTrak, which says it added 1,000 customers a quarter in 2020, as a violation of work-life boundaries.

"It's horrifying," he said. "It's not just tracking workers. It's driving them to quit."

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U.C. San Diego Associate Professor of Management Liz Lyons agreed with Fox Cahn that misuse of analytics could lead employees to feel mistrusted and employers to make potentially bad decisions — say, if they judged productivity by mouse clicks or keyboard taps. "This is kind of replicating a relatively poor management practice of just looking at who's sitting at their desk," Lyons said.

But Lyons also performed a study that found when employers made monitoring more visible to remote employees, it actually improved both job satisfaction and productivity.

"But the reason for this was they felt their manager was paying attention to them because they were important for the company," she said.

As more employers welcome employees back into offices, it remains uncertain whether they'll continue utilizing tattleware to track performance at the rate they have during these last 18ish months of working from home, and, Lyon said, even less certain whether they'll do so productively.

"What I've seen is very few employers know what those insights mean relative to actual output," she said.

ActivTrak did not respond to FOX 5 NY's request for comment in time for this story to make air.

"Just because you're getting a paycheck from someone doesn't mean they get to control your life," Fox Cahn said.