On remote employee monitoring tools
Irina Raicu is the director of the Internet Ethics Program at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics. Views are her own.
Dear Board Members,
Thank you for inviting us to present our monitoring software program. As you are well aware, interest in monitoring the activities of employees who are working remotely has grown exponentially during this time of pandemic and working from home. Back in 2019, a Gartner survey of 239 corporations found that more than half were already using “nontraditional monitoring techniques” for their employees, with such techniques defined as “things like analyzing the text of emails and social-media messages, scrutinizing who’s meeting with whom, gathering biometric data and understanding how employees are utilizing their workspace.” The analysis of the results of that survey argued that “[e]mployees themselves are getting more comfortable with such employee monitoring--if you are transparent about why and how you’re doing it.” As evidence, the analysis cited a different Gartner survey which “found that in 2018, 30% of employees were comfortable with their employer monitoring their email, compared to only 10% of employees in 2015.”
One might point out that 30% is still a minority; that the survey only mentioned email monitoring; and that the larger percentage of people claiming that they’re comfortable doesn’t in fact tell us that the employees are “more” comfortable. And the survey was done when most of that monitoring would have happened in the workplace, not at home. But we are not here to bicker with those comments. We are here to explain why, in a world of increasing comfort with nontraditional remote monitoring techniques, it is time to use those techniques to assess the most important employees: those in the C-level suite.
We proudly introduce our new product: BossWare.
A recent article from the Electronic Frontier Foundation highlights a slew of products being offered to track lower-level employees, and, a as a shorthand, refers to such products as “bossware.” “While aimed at helping employers,” write Bennett Cyphers and Karen Gullo, “bossware” logs “every click and keystroke, covertly gathering information for lawsuits, and using other spying features that go far beyond what is necessary and proportionate to manage a workforce.” That may be true for the workforce at large. But what about the management of CEOs—the people with outsized power to determine a company’s future? Would thorough monitoring be necessary and proportionate in their case?
That is where BossWare comes in. BossWare is the first product designed specifically for the monitoring of CEOs by their board of directors. BossWare includes all the features of other nontraditional monitoring products: it logs applications and websites that the CEO accesses and uses, social media posts, email and other messages; it also uses location tracking via GPS. Like similar current software (as detailed by the EFF), it “also records levels of input from the keyboard and mouse—for example, … a minute-by-minute breakdown of how much a user types and clicks, using that as a proxy for productivity.” The productivity of a CEO is clearly relevant to the question of CEO compensation, which board members are entrusted to address. Finally, the board would have direct proxy metrics.
But tracking products highlight a variety of additional purposes for their surveillance. One product reviewed by the EFF advertises the fact that it “can be silently and remotely installed, so you can conduct covert investigations… and bullet-proof evidence gathering without alarming the suspected wrongdoer.” Given recent scandals involving CEOs, which have impacted the reputations of a number of companies, BossWare includes this ability as well. Like many of the monitoring products already on the market, it also takes periodic screenshots and incorporates a keylogger, which captures any typed text. Thus, surreptitious installation of BossWare might allow the board to preempt any public scandals and related lawsuits; on the other hand, overt, fully disclosed installation might encourage more virtuous behavior on the part of those being tracked—or at least the maintenance of the appearance of such behavior. We look forward to working with a variety of clients to establish which option would lead to the best outcomes for their companies.
The article by the Electronic Frontier Foundation is, of course, a condemnation of many such tools; it argues that new protections are required for workers, and that, among other things, “[s]urveillance of workers—even on employer-owned devices—should be necessary and proportionate.” Again, given the power and remuneration of CEOs, we maintain that surveillance of CEOs is more necessary and proportionate than the surveillance of other workers.
The EFF calls on legislatures to create new laws to protect employee privacy, especially at a time when so many people are working from home, on devices that mix work and personal communications, and in circumstances in which the vast amounts of data collected about employees through work monitoring might leak or be hacked, causing great harm. We would argue that collecting such detailed data about CEO behavior would incentivize companies to take any and all measures possible in order to prevent hacks and leaks of that data; thus, deploying BossWare is also likely to lead to innovation in privacy and security protections for all monitored workers.
Still, in an abundance of prudence, we have decided, for now, not to incorporate the ability to surreptitiously turn on, remotely, the microphone and webcam on a CEO’s device (though some existing employee tracking tools offer that).
In the meantime, notes the EFF, “workers who know they are subject to surveillance— and feel comfortable doing so—should engage in conversations with their employers.” Similarly, we encourage the board to engage in a conversation with the CEO and other members of the company’s C-suite about what kind of employee monitoring tools may already be in place at their company, about the averred benefits and harms of such tools, and about the proposed deployment of BossWare. Should the CEO and others oppose BossWare, the board should explore the reasons for the opposition, and determine whether those reasons might also apply to the deployment of nontraditional monitoring tools elsewhere in the company.
Photo by Evan Hamilton, used under a Creative Commons license.