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Silence and Anxiety under Office Surveillance: Employee Privacy and Ubiquitous Employers
Editor's note: Comprehensive monitoring of workers by employers is nothing new. In recent years, a large number of companies have used monitoring and surveillance software and equipment to spy on the words and actions of their employees. Workers' rights in the workplace have been further compressed. Private conversations between employees, occasional job hunting, and even comments on social media can lead to pay cuts, dismissals, and even retaliation. When being monitored becomes a "working condition" that workers have to accept; every word and deed of employees will be recorded and become evidence against them; employees are forced to expose their privacy to the eyes of employers - all of this Widening inequalities between employees and employers. Workers need to choose between two paths: remain silent or form unions, outlaw special forms of surveillance, and use antitrust and labor laws to restructure power to fight for their own legitimate rights. This article originally appeared in The New York Review of Books by Zephyr Teachout, a professor at Fordham University School of Law.
Decades ago, I first moved to New York. At the time I applied for a job as a personal assistant to a writer. I imagined myself becoming a scribe, translating inspired manifestos into poetry. My real job, however, was ordering and returning clothes, arranging haircuts, and arranging seats for dinners for literati I had never met. My boss, her husband as a fund manager, and their kids live in a Park Avenue penthouse with Georgian drapes and triple-pane soundproof windows. My boss has a collection of bespoke services: including personal trainers, personal shopping consultants, personal poetry coaches, and personal opera coaches. I am one of four full-time staff, the other three are two live-in Irish nannies and a French maid. During the thirty-minute lunch time, the four of us will rush into the kitchen and use that little gold-handled tap to boil water, make tea, and make soup. We ate and laughed and complained about our boss.
Once while we were eating, the head maid started making a phone call in the corner and quickly dropped the receiver. Pointing to the golden handset handle, she told us that "the boss is eavesdropping on the door." When we huddled together for soup, I said the boss always asked me for a report on what we were chatting about. The maid whispered that she was sure she saw the boss hiding outside the kitchen door. At first we thought it was funny, then we stopped laughing. A flurry of anxiety begins to spread across the room.
After a few weeks, the maid was fired. It's unclear if this has anything to do with her previous remarks. But once the paranoia has got you under control, it won't let go easily. Our salaries and raises are unpredictable; two of the staff are still working on green cards. These used to be the subject of our conversation, and it suddenly became a source of insecurities. We drifted apart, and then suddenly we stopped having lunch together.
Lately, I've been reminded of that frustrating experience as the current generation is experiencing a surge in corporate investment in workplace surveillance. 1995, when I took that job, seems to have become an embarrassingly old age, an age without surveillance. There were no companies like Facebook or Google to track where people went, and there were no dreaded personalised ads. Back then, Americans spent an average of 30 minutes a month online, and 24/7 "intimacy surveillance" was a "reserved means" against the targets of FBI investigations.
Before I was 24, I had worked in a dozen locations, clocking in and out, speeding up the dishes when the supervisor came, weighing the beans I picked, and haggling for an early leave so that I could Cleaning an extra bathroom; writing a report for the third-grade teacher I assist in the classroom. Even the tips I get when I'm a waiter are entirely my own income and have nothing to do with the restaurant. My bosses have limited knowledge of me: they only know what I wear and my overall productivity; they have no idea what I think or feel outside the workplace unless I choose to share proactively.
As it happens, the 1980s and 1990s were a major turning point in surveillance technology. During this period, companies first ushered in a boom in purchasing electronic monitoring equipment. In 1987, approximately 6 million workers were being monitored in some way (usually via cameras or tape recorders); by 1994, approximately 1 in 7 U.S. workers (approximately 20 million) were electronically tracked while at work . Since then, that number has steadily risen. After video recording technology was replaced by digital devices that could scan multiple locations at once, cameras originally installed to prevent theft from businesses turned their insatiable gaze on workers instead of merchandise.
We are currently in the midst of a second huge twist in electronic surveillance. Wearable technology, artificial intelligence, and the pandemic are driving this change. Enterprise use of monitoring software increased by an estimated 50% in the first year of the pandemic, and that number is growing.
This new tracking technology is ubiquitous and invasive. Companies say tracking is for safety and productivity, and of course because they have the ability to do so. They examine, save, and analyze employee actions, conversations, social relationships, and influence. If the first surveillance expansion was a territorial grab, the company exercising power over all its workers; then the second surveillance expansion was the cracking of the land with water pressure, which changed people and even individuals and themselves. relationship structure between.
Some long-haul truckers drive 600 miles a day in 50-foot flatbeds, with cameras staring at them the entire time, watching their eyes and knuckles move, the occasional twitching, whistling, and the occasional stiff neck. Imagine drivers being forced to live for months on end around that nosy camera with a "boss face" scanning your cab, which is your home most of the time. On a Reddit forum, where drivers expressed "camera rage," one truck driver wrote: "If the boss of the company allows me 24/7 unrestricted viewing of his house, I can put up with the cameras." Another netizen said: "These hundreds of miles a day are the only time I have entirely on my own, and I feel like it's polluted"; "I just want to pick my nose in peace". A bus driver described some of the desires of ordinary people: "Grimace, talk to myself or sing along to a song... In my second job, I could feel the cortex flowing through my body A lot less alcohol because the buses there are older and don’t have cameras in them. Cameras make you unhealthy and tire you out.”
Employers have the right to read employees' emails, track their internet usage, and monitor their conversations. Nurses and warehouse workers are forced to wear electronic IDs, wristbands, or clothing with chips that track their movements, measure their steps, and correlate those workers' steps with those of other colleagues, as well as their Compare your steps yesterday.
The bracelet that now wraps around your skin and strokes your median nerve may one day be used to send signals to you or your employer about how long you've been in the bathroom. Amazon, which meticulously tracks every moment, pause, and conversation of warehouse workers, has a patent for wristbands. According to The New York Times, the wristband "sends ultrasonic pulses and radio transmissions to track the relationship of an employee's hand to the inventory bin," then vibrates to guide the employee to the correct bin; while the "smart" used in trucking SmartCap can monitor a person's brain waves to see if an individual is fatigued.
Existing HR software can monitor the tone of a worker. A large company called Cogito touts its product as an "AI coach capable of augmenting human capabilities through speech analysis and feedback in real-time calls." As employees deal with angry consumer complaints in cubicles, they can make $15 an hour, but they have to watch out for screens that pop up. If they speak too quickly, causing their voice to overlap the customer's, or if they pause for too long, the screen will start flickering. "[This helps foster] empathy at scale among employees," the company said.
In a sense, the fact that websites closely track user behavior is nothing new: after all, the business models of tech companies like Facebook and Google depend on tracking users on and off their websites. The commodification of data is in its third decade. But monitoring and automatic management at work are different. Workers can’t opt out without losing their jobs: The following actions could be considered violations of company policy, you can’t turn off cameras in trucks; you can’t rip recording equipment off your ID. There’s also a powerful hidden threat of spying on employees: If the company finds you’re too tired, you might even miss out on a promotion; if it overhears something the company doesn’t like, you might be fired.
Ubiquitous job surveillance has huge political implications. While bosses used to eavesdrop on workers' conversations, they could only do so occasionally. Logically speaking, it is impossible to eavesdrop any further. Now, everything is different. Employees must assume that everything they say is likely to be recorded. What does it mean when all the words, and the tone of those words, are likely to be replayed? Private communication between employees has lost its power.
In many cases, worker monitoring is installed for ostensible safety concerns, such as installing thermal cameras to protect clients and colleagues from feverish workers. But it turned out to be no good for the well-being of employees. Electronic surveillance puts the body of the person being tracked in a state of permanent hypervigilance, which is especially bad for health; it gets worse with employee incapacity. Employees who learn they are being monitored become anxious, exhausted, extremely nervous and angry. Monitoring can lead to the release and constant flow of stressful chemicals that can exacerbate heart problems. It can lead to mood disturbances, hyperventilation and depression. A recent survey of electronic surveillance in call centers by business professors at Cornell and McMaster Universities found that electronic surveillance can be as stressful as customers who insult workers. Workers believed that supervision was for discipline, not improvement; the company’s expectations were unreasonable, which made supervision unfair. They prefer a human boss to a ubiquitous robot spy who has the power to influence their paycheck.
It's no surprise that truck drivers' mental health is taking a hit, and call center employees are facing a breakdown. Truck drivers and call center workers report facing a volatile fog, surrounded by uncertainty and paranoia: Which gesture, which bathroom trip, which conversation caused me to lose my bonus? “I knew we were working, but I didn’t even dare to scratch my nose,” said one Amazon driver, who chose not to reveal her name for fear of reprisals, of the company’s driver-facing cameras.
In 2011, Uber founder Travis Kalanick invited Chicago's celebrities to a party at the Elysian Hotel. On a large screen, he showed a map he initially called "God View", later renamed "Heaven," through which the company could track drivers without their knowledge. driver. Partygoers were surprised to see hundreds of cars speeding through the city. The feeling of being on top of the world is dizzying.
This anecdote is from Mike Isaac's Super Pumped: The Battle for Uber, where the author describes Kalanick being elated and enjoying the domination status. More often, we see him and the company exhibit habitual paranoia, conducting espionage operations to protect the "fortress." The book opens with Kalanick responding to regulatory resistance by hiring "former CIA, NSA and FBI employees" to build a "highly functioning corporate espionage force" to "spy on government officials" , gain insight into their personal lives, and sometimes follow them to their homes.” Once businesses find that regulators are trying to file a case that Uber violated local laws, Uber creates codes to ensure regulators cannot match Uber drivers, making it impossible for the agency to investigate Uber for violating local employment laws. Instead, Uber will provide a mock-up of the app with a fake car. The supervisor looks to match the driver, but the driver never shows up. Uber called the program a "grey ball."
Isaac is a reporter for the technology section of The New York Times and writes frequently about Silicon Valley. In 2017, two years before the book was published, he disclosed Grayball's story in The New York Times. He provides a brilliant account of Uber, from the company's inception to Kalanick's ouster, after which Kalanick returned to Uber and used surveillance to build power. The company continues to track customers after they end their ridesharing service, mines credit card data to learn about competitors and monitors drivers who drive for rival companies. It set up a strategic services group to set up "virtual private networks, cheap laptops and wireless hotspots" through cash payments. Uber also impersonates drivers in private group chats to learn about competitors; takes pictures of officials; stalks others, and records private conversations of competitors.
Isaac shows how Kalanick spent tens of millions of dollars on surveillance and related activities. In July 2022, Mark MacGann, Uber's former chief lobbyist in EMEA, leaked more than 124,000 documents to The Guardian, showing Uber's operations between 2013 and 2017. How to ignore the law, and how its executives built their empires by courting the head of state.
Dara Khosrowshahi, the former head of Expedia, replaced Kalanick as Uber's CEO in 2017 after a series of sexual harassment and workplace discrimination scandals. Uber has changed in some ways since Khosrowshahi took over, but the scrutiny that drivers face does not appear to have diminished.
During the period covered in Isaac's book, Uber reportedly took 20% to 25% of the cost of rides, plus incidental fees. This year, Khosrowshahi introduced a new system for paying driver fees and pricing in some cities. According to The Markup, an online investigative news site, fares are based on "multiple factors," including "base fares, estimated trip length and duration, real-time demand at the destination, and peak prices"; drivers are paid opaque , and may fluctuate. A driver shared a screenshot of his collection with The Markup. One shows him getting $14 and Uber getting $13, and the other showing him getting $6 and Uber getting $9. No one knows why drivers' wages fluctuate. We do know that the metrics Uber tracks include how fast drivers brake, where drivers go, their ratings, the trips they accept and cancel, and how long it takes them to get somewhere. It appears that compensation is likely related to these figures.
Food delivery platform DoorDash
Other companies, such as food delivery platforms DoorDash and Instacart, have been doing something similar, using opaque systems to issue "customized" payrolls. Instacart used to pay couriers a base salary, but now compensation decisions are like a black box. Workers worry that the company is using everything it knows to pay them as little as possible, but they can't prove anything.
It's all frustrating and people realize that corporations have a dystopian future, but what does this have to do with democracy? In Elizabeth Anderson's 2017 book Private Government, both vivid and persuasive, she offers readers part of the answer. Anderson, a political philosopher at the University of Michigan, tries to free her readers from "the strange rigidity that pervades the discussion of government." She believes that employment is a form of government that is more relevant and immediate to most people than government in Washington, D.C.
For example, a powerful company like Amazon sets its own terms of employment, which affects UPS drivers and the wider logistics industry. Private employers with industry-wide influence have coercive powers — what Anderson calls governance powers. Private government, represented by private guilds or state-sanctioned economic monopolies in the soap, salt, and leather industries, was the main target of intellectuals and activists such as John Locke and the Equalists. Anderson saw in Locke, Adam Smith and others the belief that wherever such power appears, the power of arbitrary debasement and punishment is a threat to a free society; that public, accountable government should Protect people from private tyranny.
She argues that many modern "thinkers and politicians are like patients who cannot perceive half of their body": they "cannot perceive the other half of the economy: they cannot perceive the other half of the economy that takes place outside the market after an employment contract has been accepted. Phenomenon". Therefore, they usually treat the company as completely private.
Anderson writes that many private sector workers are under dictatorship at work. These dictators also have legal powers to govern workers’ lives outside of work—including their political activities, speech, choice of sexual partners, recreational drug use, alcohol, smoking, and exercise.
In her view, service workers who clock out, or technicians, real estate agents and chefs who appear to be given great freedom, are burdened by a legal system that allows businesses to fire employees based on their off-hours activities them.
Workers' voice is virtually non-existent unless workers have a clear link to labor organizations. Anderson argues that today's labor organizations are effectively a dead letter due to the difficulty of law enforcement and the fear of challenging their bosses.
How did things get so bad? Anderson argues that the underlying problems of the current workplace hysteria go back generations. When the Industrial Revolution shifted "the main place of paid work from the home to the factory," it introduced a long tradition of total authoritarian power within the home. In this tradition, children "have no freedom" over their parents, and wives have "limited freedom" over their spouses. The Industrial Revolution, which could have offered people an escape from the private tyranny of family life, replicated that tyranny.
During the Ford Motor Company's heyday, its sociology department began examining workers' families. "Workers are only eligible for Ford if they keep their homes clean, eat healthy, don't drink alcohol, use bathtubs appropriately, don't host boarders, avoid spending too much money on foreign relatives, and integrate into American cultural norms," Anderson wrote. The famous $5 a day salary.
Anderson noted that while Apple won't go to employees' homes right now, it does require retail workers to open their bags for inspection before going to work. And employees take it for granted, but should we? Nearly half of Americans have been tested for drugs without basis. Additionally, many workers are fired for what they say on social media, but protections don't exist. To those who claim that "the workplace is not the government because you can quit," Anderson countered: "It's as ridiculous as saying 'Mussolini is not a dictator because Italians can emigrate.'"
Anderson isn't focused on surveillance, but her research shows two things. First, to address constant surveillance activity, we should focus on power, not just technology. Fighting for labor rights and good antitrust enforcement must be a first-tier response to today's deteriorating power structures. Second, we should treat employer surveillance like any government surveillance—in other words, be deeply suspicious of it. If we could see the workplace as a place of government, we might be able to start a political movement for greater freedom in the workplace of American workers.
In order to understand the reality we live in, we need to be able to talk to each other with peace of mind without fear that those conversations will be used against us. Private conversations between workers, as well as their friendships, debates, and questions, are necessary components to foster cohesion and build connections. This is the foundation of both labor organization and public life. Workers are also more likely to be silenced when everything we say is monitored, especially by a smaller but more powerful group of employers. This is not dissimilar to the political totalitarianism that Hannah Arendt warned about; in which the state controls the public by submerging the private in the public, thereby dismantling the private and the public. The logical conclusion of workplace surveillance is that the private sphere ceases to exist in the home, just as the private sphere ceases to exist in the workplace. In the workplace, people can observe the lives of employees without restriction.
Three years ago, when I was collecting "On Monopolies and How They Act as Private Governments" for my book, I interviewed chicken farmers who were paid different monthly payments from large poultry dealers. A farmer has left a deep impression on my memory. He was a loving, angry, yet frustrated man. He described a situation in which, after examining a month's payments from a poultry dealer, he said he didn't know whether the payments reflected his fair play with other farmers, retaliation for his outspokenness, or To prove he was part of some kind of experiment. He recalled that other farmers admitted they were furious and wanted to kill the distributor.
This compensation system is called the tournament system. Farmers compete to be "the most productive"; in theory, they are paid based on their productivity relative to other farmers. However, this system lacks accountability or fact-checking mechanisms: distributors retain all data. When paying wages, farmers who rely entirely on distributors to stay solvent have to trust that "the system is honest".
Amazon has used a tournament-like approach to wield power over its opponents. Its targets include governments, sellers and workers. In Brad Stone's second book on Amazon's growth, "Amazon Unbound," he recounts the company's massive expansion and its growth in political power over the past decade.
On October 13, 2020, local time, in Frankenthal, Germany, Amazon workers work in a warehouse.
In Stone's narrative, Jeff Bezos is deeply involved in every aspect of human resource management in the company's offices and warehouses. He employed a compensation and promotion system called a "stack ranking," in which middle managers rank employees and fire the lowest-ranked employees. Managers have quotas on "how many people to fire" and need to rank to decide which employees to fire. That no longer exists after The New York Times detailed on its front page how the company's culture pits employees against each other.
But the idea of forcing people to fight for leftovers and kicking out the worst performers has popped up in different parts of Amazon. When Amazon relied on contractors to deliver packages, it developed an app called "Rabbit" to track shipments. Stone wrote that the Rabbit team watched drivers, "skip meals, dash over stop signs, and stick their phones to their pant legs so they can easily look down at the screen, all in order to satisfy extremely challenging interactions." delivery date”. Those who did not meet the requirements were fired. When Amazon decided it wanted to build a new headquarters, it announced a competition to determine the location of the new headquarters; the company obtained competition data for 238 different cities for free in the process.
Bezos was furious that Amazon's operations chiefs had tried to get the company to absorb Toyota's "lean" approach, where employees build trust and relationships with managers, with the goal of long-term hires, said Stone, a Bloomberg technology reporter. After the same department's vice president of human resources submitted a paper called "Respect for People," Stone wrote, "Bezos hated it so much. Not only did he yell at the meeting, but he also scolded it in the first session." Call the rep the next morning to continue the intimidation." Bezos doesn't want to build a steady workforce, he wants warehouse workers to stay for a maximum of three years unless they find new jobs in-house; he's also strictly limited to three years subsequent salary increase.
Amazon has made unusual demands on warehouse workers: It bans conversations between employees, tracks all their movements, fires workers who fail to meet quotas, and expects conditions so bad that workers will quit. According to the New York Times, before the pandemic, “the turnover rate of its workforce was about 150 percent per year.”
One employee spoke to Vox about the growing number of 911 calls from inside Amazon's warehouses: "You're going to stand for 10 hours, there are no windows in the warehouse. Employees are not allowed to talk to people, not to interact. I feel like they're going to make people work to death, or make them too tired to keep working."
"It's a big reason why people want to unionize," Chris Smalls, leader of the Amazon Labor Union, told the Washington Post in December 2021. Staten Island warehouse successfully unionized in 2022, "Who wants to be watched all day? This is not a prison. This is a job."
It's tempting to think of Amazon's surveillance as a pure warehouse management issue and surveillance-driven variable pay as a purely gig issue, but employers are not subject to any legal restrictions on incorporating the new variable pay into formal employment. The unfair treatment faced by independent contractors versus regular employees is merging. This is one of the central ideas of "Your Boss is an Algorithm" by European law professors Antonio Aloisi and Valerio De Stefano. As the weakest form of work for workers, gig work has become the place to test new management techniques. After experimenting with these management strategies, managers applied the same management to other forms of employment.
Aloisi and DeStefano believe the future direction of business management is to combine tracking and rewarding tools in gig work with employment contracts that allow for changes in pay. In fact, the existing management toolkits are already huge: Activtrack software checks the programs employees use and reports to their bosses when they are distracted and using social media; OccupEye records when employees leave work position, and how long you have been away. TimeDoctor and Teramind log every task performed online. Similarly, Interguard compiles a minute-by-minute timeline, monitors all data such as web history and bandwidth utilization, and notifies managers if it detects any suspicious behavior by workers. Every five minutes or so, HubStaff and Sneek use webcams to take a snapshot of employees, generate an attendance card, and spread it among employees to "boost morale." Pragli syncs career calendars and music playlists to create a “sense of community”; it also features facial recognition that displays real-world emotions on the faces of workers’ avatars.
Currently, evidence on how these tools have changed traditional workplace compensation is limited. But the authors argue that these technological tools could be combined with "legal innovations" in labor contracts, and contracts that allow for wage adjustments could introduce many of the conditions of gig work into traditional employment. Businesses may soon ditch the fixed-wage model that has characterized blue-collar employment for decades.
It's no coincidence that routine job supervision disappeared after Reagan launched the antitrust revolution and dismantled private sector unions. Nothing will stop employers from collecting all the data from sensors and recordings and using it to adjust wages more precisely until every worker is forced to accept the "minimum they are willing to work for" unless unionized or new laws are created wages”; in addition, all workers had to live in fear of reprisals. It's no more sci-fi than Facebook and Google providing users with personalized content and ads designed to keep us using their services for as long as possible and to sell as many ads as possible.
The custom clothing that my Park Avenue boss wears is a sign of privilege, a step above mass production. She opts for suits that better fit her figure, with shoes tailored to the grooves and arches of her feet. The personal promise of modern technology is based on romanticized concepts of individuality and authenticity. We can all live in similarly tailored worlds, where newsfeeds can be tailored to our preferences, careers, and leisure interests.
But to carry on this bespoke spirit, it's very unromantic: these cameras may have the intimacy and memories of lovers, but they lack all the affection. Modern surveillance technology means that tailor-made wages will emerge in all workplaces. In the late 20th century, the low wages of mass production and lack of union organization were already worrying; but the new, specially tailored AI wages of the 21st century took authoritarianism to a new level. To stop this, we must outlaw special forms of surveillance and use antitrust and labor laws to restructure power.
Tracking technology may be marketed as a "tool to protect people," but it will ultimately be used to identify precisely what wages each worker is willing to accept. It will be used to drive down workers’ incomes and make it harder for unions to connect with other workers, stifling pre-union camaraderie and undermining communities where democratic debate can take place. It will undermine solidarity by giving workers different wages. This will cause anxiety and fear to spread to more workplaces, as employees have no way of knowing why they are getting bonuses or being demoted.
This is important because work is not an afterthought in a democratic society; the relationships built at work are an essential cornerstone of a democratic society. The employees were completely atomized, the management of the company discouraged them from connecting, and they were forced to show their most private sides to their bosses without reservation. I cannot imagine such a democratic society.
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