The stigma sometimes associated with working from home has evaporated, and we have the COVID-19 pandemic to thank for that.
Of all the coronavirus-induced changes, that is hardly the worst one, but employers may not see it that way. From their perspective, there are some significant downsides to having staff operate remotely.
The costs may be lower and the employees may be happier, but how does an employer monitor performance and productivity of an employee in a remote work environment? With employee surveillance software, of course.
What Is Employee Surveillance Software?
Employee surveillance software is any type of software used to supervise, monitor, and analyze an employee's job performance.
According to a study from the VPN review website Top10VPN, demand for employee surveillance software has increased dramatically since the onset of the pandemic.
In April 2020, at the very beginning of the pandemic, the global demand for employee monitoring software surged by 87 percent.
Since March 2021, the researchers have recorded a 63 percent average increase compared to pre-pandemic averages, demonstrating that demand is not waning.
According to them, this is the new normal.
What Can Employee Monitoring Tools Do?
Employers have a wide variety of monitoring tools to choose from. Some are pretty basic, but others are incredibly invasive and offer, for example, webcam surveillance and remote control takeover.
So, what are employers looking for exactly?
Though tools like Time Doctor, DeskTime, and Teramind seem to be in demand, the volume of internet searches for surveillance software-related keywords offers a glimpse into the hivemind, showing that there are 26 popular employee surveillance tools.
Of those 26 popular tools, 81 percent are capable of keystroke logging, 61 percent offer instant messaging monitoring, 65 percent send user action alerts, and 38 percent have remote control takeover capabilities.
What sort of information would an employer be able to extrapolate from, say, employees' instant messages?
The software company Aware, for instance, boasts on its official website that one of its tools can "track collective changes in mood, attitude, or behavior" and "gain a deeper understanding of where and how conversations transpire."
It can also, the company says, "identify trends in conversation sentiment and behavior anomalies across your networks" and "drill insights down to the group level—including private and secret groups."
Similarly, iMonitorSoft has released several highly-invasive employee surveillance products that can track and record print jobs, stream videos of workers' desktops in real-time, monitor all internet-related activities (including, for example, Skype file transfers), capture emails and instant messages, and more.
Advertised as a centralized employee surveillance solution, iMonitorSoft stores all collected data, allowing employers to comb through it at any time.
EfficientLab's Work Examiner can collect a tremendous amount of data as well and, for example, allow employers to "view screenshots from a user's computer in real-time mode with constant refresh, almost like a spy cam."
The software can also apply web filters, track attendance, and record keystrokes. "You can even capture the passwords typed in many programs and websites!" the company's website states.
Best of all, Work Examiner "works in stealth mode," which means it's almost completely undetectable: there are no icons in the taskbar, no items in Task Manager, and so on. "What's more, hidden WE Client modules are protected from being stopped," EfficientLab says.
Is Your Boss Watching You?
What may seem like dystopian fiction is already being implemented in companies around the world.
Vice recently obtained an internal Amazon document which showed that the company wants to monitor customer service workers' keyboard and mouse strokes.
The document states that Amazon has a security gap and includes a number of instances where imposters managed to steal Amazon customer data.
Other tech giants appear to be moving in this direction as well.
NBC News reported earlier this month that one of the world’s largest call center companies, Teleperformance, is pressuring employees to accept home surveillance.
Teleperformance—which is used by Amazon, Apple, and Uber—allegedly coerced some employees to sign a new contract and allow AI-powered cameras to be installed in their homes. The contract allegedly also allows the company to collect and store data from employees' family members, including minors.
Workers at Teleperformance in Albania pushed back against the demand, reporting the company to the country’s Information and Data Protection Commissioner. The body ruled that Teleperformance cannot use webcams to monitor remote employees.
Needless to say, privacy advocates are concerned. There is a fine line between management and invasive surveillance, and some companies appear to be crossing it.
Brian Honan, a cybersecurity consultant and former advisor to Europol, told CNBC that some employee surveillance tools—like the ones that log keystrokes and snap screenshots—may not even be legal under the European Union's GDPR regulations.
Implications for Cybersecurity
Obvious privacy implications aside, the shift to remote working has made companies and workers alike more vulnerable to cyber attacks.
According to IBM Security, the United States government alone reported a 400 percent increase in cyberattacks in April 2020 compared to pre-pandemic levels.
The social networking company Twitter had a major breach in June last year, when a teenager impersonating a worker from the IT department called several remote employees asking for credentials to an internal customer service portal.
The teenager and two collaborators managed to take over accounts of prominent politicians and businessmen, and ultimately extracted from their followers around $120,000 through a Bitcoin scheme.
If a clever teenager can hack into billionaire Elon Musk and U.S. President Joe Biden's Twitter accounts, what could sophisticated hacker groups and hostile foreign governments do?
Twitter has told employees that they can work from home forever if they wish, and companies around the world have done the same. If remote working is not going away, it wouldn't be unreasonable to assume that employee surveillance software is also here to stay.
Maintaining Privacy Under Employee Surveillance
Companies have a right to track and monitor employees, even those who work from home, but their rights are not absolute.
In a democratic society, employees have a degree of sovereignty and a right to separate the professional and the personal; draw a line between being managed and being spied on.
From an employer's perspective, allowing a worker to access company systems using personal devices is a potential cybersecurity risk.
For an employee, keeping home and work life separate is a necessity.
If, for some reason, you have to use a personal device for work, remember to back up your data, use only trusted software, keep your passwords safe, and invest in strong antivirus software capable of detecting and blocking potentially intrusive apps.