How your company might be checking up on you as you work from home

Micromana-jerk. That’s what Frank Smith calls his boss, and he has his reasons.

“Ever since we began working from home, she’s tracking every move of my mouse, every letter I type, every Web site I visit and every minute I’m away from my computer,” says the 35-year-old project manager from Summit, NJ.

He feels like he can’t change his daughter’s diaper or take his dog out for a walk without her noticing.

“My wife thinks I’m paranoid,” says Smith. Experts say that might not be the case.

“It is safe to assume that employers have access to browsing history, keystrokes entered [aggregating sentences and words], company provided programs, folders, applications and screenshots of your desktop taken every few minutes along with screenshots of e-mails that have been opened,” says cybersecurity and privacy attorney Dorianne Van Dyke.

This is the case when you are using a computer that your company has issued and/or are signing into apps or applications for which the employer pays. It’s important to note if you are using something like a company-paid Zoom account to talk to family or friends, your employer owns that content as well.

In 2018, research firm Gartner surveyed 239 large corporations and found that half were using “nontraditional” monitoring techniques such as these, as well as probing the text of e-mails, social-media messages and automated telephone transcripts.

“I realized how intrusive my boss was when she literally told our team, on a Zoom call, that we shouldn’t be shopping for bikes on her dime,” says Smith, who had used his work laptop to search for a tricycle for his daughter’s birthday while eating lunch a few days earlier.

Workers best get ready to see more of this kind of behavior, because employee monitoring is on the rise. A recent study by Gartner found that during the first eight weeks of the pandemic, when working from home became mandatory for many, there was a 16 percent rise in software purchased specifically to track remote employees.

One thing many workers may not realize is that they can be videoed throughout the workday regardless of whether they are on a call according to Bahman Mahbod, CEO of Dtex Systems, which provides next-generation technology that offers an understanding of how employees interact with company data on their work devices.

“Not everyone should be treated as a criminal,” he says. “If you are constantly looking over someone’s shoulder [with intrusive technology], you will eventually see them do something wrong,” he says.

This can be as simple as accidentally sending a link to a file to a co-worker that they are not supposed to have access to. “There is a 78 percent increase in accidental data loss when employees work from home,” says Mahbod.

But this is only one way that often-faulty assumptions can be made about work-from-home employees. Leora Eisenstadt, assistant professor in the department of legal studies at the Fox School of Business at Temple University, says that while companies already had access to all kinds of information on workers on site — age, marital status, number of children, home address, income, hours on the clock, vacation timing, technology preferences and much more, working from home opens up what she calls a “Pandora’s box of data.”

Consider that a video call with your co-workers, clients or boss might reveal what your kids or spouse look like, how they dress, what kind of art you like, if you have pets, whether your aging parents live with you and so much more. And while this information offers some new data points, what if you look at Twitter, Facebook or Instagram from your work computer or a computer connected to your employer’s Virtual Private Network (VPN). That’s information that your employer can access, say the experts. Add grocery and liquor store orders, refills on your family’s medications . . . “Start going down this road, and it’s hard to look away,” says Eisenstadt.

And while your company can’t view some of this information without your consent, chances are good that you gave them permission to do so on one of your first days of work by checking a box or initialing something on a form that was in your new-hire packet, according to Van Dyke. Moreover, if you join a company-offered health-care platform that helps you look for doctors, get information on health conditions and medications, or track your Fitbit, your company may have even more data about you.

So, what can your employer do with all of these data points? Eisenstadt claims that they can be digested in an algorithm that might be used to predict things like what kinds of workers you should be teamed with, whether you are looking to get pregnant, or worried about having a health problem. The latter could mean that your manager assigns an important project to someone other than you because your life issues could distract you.

And while that’s one simple way predictions can be made, what if the algorithm discovers that people who drink Sam Adams, read the Wall Street Journal, do crossword puzzles and prefer hiking over running make great leaders?

Eisenstadt worries about this, and suggests that workers read the fine print before they check any boxes allowing anyone to see their data. As for employers collecting volumes of data and taking action on what algorithms predict, she invites them to pause and think about what they are doing. “Just because you can do this, it doesn’t mean you should,” she says.

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