Workplace surveillance

April 7, 2019 (865 words) :: Workplace surveillance is more than merely an issue of privacy. It's about power, and control, and deepening a relation of class domination.
Tags: startups, class-struggle

This post is day 97 of a personal challenge to write every day in 2019. See the other fragments, or sign up for my weekly newsletter.

Here’s a FastCompany article with a striking headline: Workplace tracking is growing fast. Most workers don’t seem very concerned

The author, Rick Wartzman, gives some reasons why workers don’t seem to be expressing discontent with the increased prevalence of surveillance: 1) workers don’t know; 2) workers know there’s nothing they can do about it anyway; and 3) workers are convinced that it’s in their best interests, too.

The article mentions a Cambridge, MA-based startup called “Humanyze”, which you may have seen making the rounds on Twitter in this video by the Economist, captioned “bosses have a new way of spying on workers”. Humanyze, which bills itself as a “people analytics” provider, claims to “maximize productivity and collaboration”, using data from a company’s various cloud services as well as employee ID badges that tracks your movements and conversations.

Now, the FastCompany is part of a series about data privacy, and so Humanyze is asked about their commitments to preventing privacy infringements. The company actually comes off rather well in that regard:

Humanyze explores the time stamps of emails, the length of face-to-face conversations, and how communication flows within an organization, but no personally identifiable or confidential information is compiled. Integers, rather than employee names, are used. Data is encrypted and purged 90 days after a project is complete. Meanwhile, Humanyze software combs through all of this metadata is to uncover patterns about how well different teams work with each other—or don’t.

And okay, sure, it’s great that Humanyze isn’t literally dumping personally-identifying information to a public AWS S3 bucket. But whether it respects some benchmark of data privacy or not isn’t the point. The entire goal of a company like Humanyze is to help other companies squeeze as much labour out of employees as possible - Taylorism to the extreme. That is the problem.

In this context, focusing on potential privacy issues feels like a distraction. Workplace surveillance entrenches a relationship of power, and it doesn’t matter if the data is anonymised or aggregated, because it’s ultimately still used to bolster management’s ability to control its workers. Workers who, ultimately, don’t have a choice except to work somewhere, and if your boss is telling you they’re going to surveil you to make sure you’re working efficiently, it’s probably because they know you don’t have a choice but to accept. Or they’ll be able to find someone else to replace you, if you surprise them by objecting.

In the workplace, power flows in one direction, and surveillance is just another weapon to maintain domination. Here’s a thought experiment: what if it wasn’t workers who were surveilled, but managers? What if Jeff Bezos had to wear a wristband tracking his every move, and low-level employees could judge his actions and dock his pay or fire him if he was deemed to be working unproductively?

Of course this would never happen, and we kind of just take for granted that it would be impossible, even thought it might actually eke some efficiency gains out of otherwise unsupervised execs. Because the point of workplace surveillance isn’t merely about efficiency - it’s about efficiency under a very specific set of power relations, i.e., an authoritarian regime.

I do understand the appeal of maximising for efficiency - I used to be someone who valorised efficiency to the point of absurdity, and it’s something I still struggle with today (as many people have made fun of me for, especially re: Huel). But efficiency can come at a cost, and the cost in this case is that of entrenching a deeply unfair hierarchy. I’m sure those who defended slavery or child labour would have appealed to economic efficiency, too, completely disregarding the costs (because they weren’t the ones who had to bear them, I guess).

To summarise: workplace surveillance isn’t bad because it infringes on privacy. It’s bad because it’s another avenue for bosses to exercise power over workers, and in these dark days at the zenith of neoliberalism, bosses already have way too much power. They do not need more power. They are not the good guys, here.

Last point I want to make here: workplace surveillance isn’t something that bosses can do on their own. For it to scale, they need reasonably sophisticated technology, which means they need people to build that technology. In other words, some workers will be paid tons of money to build tools used to oppress their fellow workers. This isn’t just specific to Humanyze - you see this in gig economy companies as well, in the form of DoorDash’s tip theft policy, or ridesharing companies continually lowering driver pay. Each time, a few tech workers are - whether they realise it or not - building technology that will increase the suffering of many others.

It’s all pretty miserable. But it doesn’t have to be this way.

In related news: I’ve started working on a short story about what it would be like to work at a startup that helps bosses surveil their workers. It’s still very exploratory at the moment, and I’m not sure where I’d want it to get published. If you have advice, please get in touch!

« See the full list of fragments