Over the last decade, tracking, monitoring, and surveillance technology have advanced significantly to help us quantify and understand human behavior in buildings and cities. Enabled by artificial intelligence (AI), streams of camera footage can be analyzed to identify accidents or security breaches, for example. While several attempts have been made to bring this technology into the mainstream office environment for the security and productivity benefits, these efforts have faced resistance on the basis of employee privacy. However, as public health takes center stage in the battle against the coronavirus pandemic, big players see a new opportunity to establish employee monitoring as a standard tool in the workplace.
This month, Amazon began to roll out AWS Panorama, its new machine learning appliance and SDK designed for organizations to bring computer vision (CV) to their on-premises video surveillance cameras. The appliance is a hardware device that adds CV to IP cameras that weren’t originally built to accommodate it, while the SDK is a software kit that enables third-party manufacturers to build new cameras that run more meaningful CV models at the edge. The technology is now being touted as a way to enforce social distancing and mask wearing policies, which will support companies as they try to safely return workers to the office during the pandemic, but privacy advocates are already raising concerns.
"In our report, we warn about the potentially negative effects that intrusive technology of this type can have on workers' well-being, right to privacy, data protection rights and the right not be discriminated against," says Mary Towers, policy officer at the Trades Union Congress (TUC), the umbrella group for UK unions, citing their recent ‘Technology Managing People’ report.
While Silkie Carlo, director of UK privacy group Big Brother Watch, went further to highlight that automated monitoring of workplaces "rarely results in benefits for employees". Stating that, "it's a great shame that social distancing has been leapt on by Amazon as yet another excuse for data collection and surveillance.”
It doesn’t help that Amazon has recently been accused of inappropriate surveillance of its own workforce. A September report by the Washington-based Open Markets Institute outlined how Amazon uses such tools as navigation software, item scanners, wristbands, thermal cameras, security cameras and recorded footage to surveil its workforce in warehouses and stores. The report highlights specific metrics, such as team-member sentiment and a diversity index, as part of Amazon’s attempts to “limit union organizing” among other things. Now, as they push out AWS Panorama under the veil of COVID-19, few believe the technology will disappear after the pandemic is over.
Amazon is not alone, however. Microsoft has also come under criticism for enabling “workplace surveillance” after privacy campaigners took aim at the company’s “productivity score” feature that allows managers to use Microsoft 365 to track their employees’ activity at an individual level. System reports provide data on individual employees, identifying those who participate less in group chat conversations, send fewer emails, or fail to collaborate in shared documents.
“This is so problematic at many levels,” tweeted Austrian researcher/activist Wolfie Christl about Microsoft.
This is so problematic at many levels:
- Managers evaluating individual-level employee data is a no go
- Any evaluation of group 'productivity' data can also shift power from employees to organizations
- Employee self control via MyAnalytics is the first step to normalization
— Wolfie Christl (@WolfieChristl) November 24, 2020
“Employer surveillance of workers is nothing new, but employers are increasingly finding new ways to watch over their workers, aided by developments in technology. And the methods that corporations are using are growing more and more invasive, often denying the basic humanity of employees,” Open Markets Institute’s ‘Eyes Everywhere’ report reads. “COVID-19 has accelerated the surveillance of workers, as it caused a shift to remote working for a large number of employees and a desire to track workers wherever they may be. But when the pandemic finally passes, the technologies that surveil workers will likely be here to stay.”
Nothing is more important than health and safety, and as employers plan the return of their workers to the office, virus health and safety are rightly regarded as the highest priorities. In many parts of the world, workplaces will be required by law to enforce social distancing and mask-wearing, for example, and employees have more justification than ever before for refusing to work in the office on the basis of health. So, regardless of how “caring” employers maybe towards the health of their staff, effective and visible virus-safety measures will become essential for business continuity in the pandemic and post-pandemic eras.
If an employee is caught breaking pandemic-health regulation the business suffers and if an outbreak of the virus occurs within the workplace the business suffers. So, companies have little choice but to find strategies to enforce measures that will reduce the risk of infection in the workplace. Only allowing half your workforce to come into the office on any given day certainly provides more space-per-person, but it doesn’t ensure those employees socially distance. While mask-wearing policy and ample signage may guarantee that every employee knows they should be wearing a mask, but it does not ensure they will. And then there’s productivity.
“For many years, occupancy benchmarking research has shown a trend towards greater densification in offices,” we wrote in a recent article. “As we come to accept that COVID-19 will be part of our lives for at least a few years, it becomes clear that a complete reversal of that densification trend will be required. However, companies will continue to strive for greater productivity and better space utilization, meaning they will need more information than ever to maintain the optimum balance in this new office environment.”
For employers to minimize the business risks associated with COVID-19, they may feel they have to monitor their employees to ensure safety guidelines are being followed. This is exactly that kind of monitoring that privacy advocates have been fighting against for years as security and productivity improvements were rebuffed. COVID-19 is different, however, lives are at stake and the virus has brought the world to a standstill in many ways, not least in the physical workplace. So, if Amazon and others can get employers onboard, resistence against virus mitigating technology is likely to be limited. History will look back at 2020 as a turning point for many things, and the surveillance workplace has a real chance of being one of them.