Your boss is watching: How AI-powered surveillance rules the workplace

Your boss is watching: How AI-powered surveillance rules the workplace

Companies are buying increasingly intrusive artificial intelligence tools to keep an eye on their workers.
14 Junio 2021

This article is part of “The age of surveillance,” a special report on artificial intelligence.

That’s how Uber drivers have to tell the ride-hailing app that they’ve signed on. Should the facial verification software the company uses decide the driver is lying about their identity — even when they’re not — they’re banned until further notice.

Uber’s algorithm also monitors workers’ performance and ranks them on a five-star basis. Consistently low ratings also mean they get kicked off the app.

This isn’t exceptional. Companies are developing and purchasing an increasing number of workplace tools, many powered by artificial intelligence, to monitor and analyze their employees. Policymakers and workers say many of the tools are intrusive, discriminatory, and in some cases illegal.

With millions of workers forced to work from home during the coronavirus pandemic, companies say they need tools that ensure productivity and appropriate behavior when a corridor-strolling supervisor isn’t around.

“Our Real-Time ID Check is designed to protect the safety and security of everyone who uses the app by ensuring the correct driver or courier is using their account,” said an Uber spokesperson, who added that “manual human reviews” take place prior to any decision to block an Uber driver from the app, and that anyone removed from the platform can appeal the decision with the company.

In February, Amazon started tracking its drivers with cameras featuring biometric feedback indicators that monitor when drivers look away from the road or go past the speed limit. An Amazon spokesperson pointed to “remarkable driver and community safety improvements” as a result of the indicators, which led to a 48 percent decrease in accidents.

“Don’t believe the self-interested critics who claim these cameras are intended for anything other than safety,” the spokesperson said, adding that the company’s use of surveillance tech in its workplaces is “in line with local laws and conducted with the full knowledge and support of local authorities.”

The testing ground

While workplace surveillance continues to grow across sectors, the gig economy in particular has become a testing ground for AI-powered surveillance, according to the European Commission’s Jobs and Social Rights Commissioner Nicolas Schmit — and the technology is “quickly spreading” to other forms of work.

Companies were already beginning to lean on workplace analytics in a bid to boost productivity and efficiency, but those trends got a massive boost from the pandemic. Ford required some of its workers to wear wristbands with trackers to ensure social distancing at its plants. Amazon is planning to use AI to monitor which muscles employees use, which it says will “decrease repetitive motion and help protect employees from [musculoskeletal disease] risks.”

A report by the U.K-based Trades Union Congress (TUC) suggests that surveillance tech is on the rise. Fifteen percent of workers it surveyed said they had experienced new performance and productivity monitoring technology since the onset of the pandemic.

AI systems are well-qualified for worker surveillance. They are efficient at counting and identifying the words typed in and websites visited; the number of emails sent; the number of steps taken in a warehouse; the number of bathroom breaks; their length — everything needed to monitor an employee’s behavior on or offline.

U.S. tech company Sapience Analytics, which produces workplace surveillance software, says its products increase “employee engagement,” resulting in “stronger productivity and higher career satisfaction.”

It drives “transparency” and objective decision-making, the company says, and is used by more than 90 companies in 18 countries. Sapience Analytics CEO Bradley Killinger has said that in using the company’s own surveillance software, he’s been able to see a number of employees operating at 145 percent capacity for six straight weeks.

“It’s to the point that I’m ordering people to just take three days, do something else,” he said.

But those kinds of tools have received pushback.

The British bank Barclays has been under investigation by the Information Commissioner’s Office — the country’s privacy watchdog — since last August, over allegations it used Sapience Analytics’ surveillance software to spy on staff.

The bank has since switched to only tracking anonymized data through the software, following critical media coverage. 

Meanwhile, Microsoft’s popular 365 office software suite has been criticized for workplace surveillance because it created “productivity scores” that allowed managers to track how actively employees email or collaborate in shared files.

It has since backtracked, also anonymizing such data so employers are no longer able to monitor individual workers.

“At Microsoft, we’re committed to both data-driven insights and user privacy,” it said in a statement. “We always strive to get the balance right, but if and when we miss, we will listen carefully and make appropriate adjustments.”

Experts warn that what looks like increased productivity may come at the cost of a greater risk of burnout, stress and mental health issues. According to a report commissioned by the European Parliament’s employment committee, surveillance technologies “reduce autonomy and privacy, lead to greater work intensification, and blur the boundaries between work and personal/family life.”

Can I speak to the manager?

The problem is that much of workplace surveillance is not regulated, according to Aída Ponce Del Castillo, a senior researcher at the European Trade Union Institute. 

“We don’t have a law that says to the employer … you don’t go beyond private life. We don’t go beyond emotions. [Companies] don’t trust the intimacy, privacy and dignity of a human worker,” Ponce Del Castillo said.

The Commission says it recognizes the severity of AI-powered surveillance in workplaces. Schmit said algorithmic management — the term given to the digital tools and techniques used to manage workers remotely — “leaves the workers with few means to challenge unfavorable decisions.”

The tech represents a “fundamental challenge for the future world of work in democratic societies,” Schmit said.

The Commission is currently working on an initiative to improve working conditions for platform workers, which is, in part, expected to address algorithmic management.

The bloc also introduced an AI law, which regulates “high-risk” uses of the technology. In the Commission’s proposal, workplace surveillance qualifies as a high-risk use, which means AI providers will have to meet certain standards, such as human oversight, to legally operate.

Countries including France, Germany and Italy limit how tech tools can be used to monitor workers at the workplace.

Rage against the machine

One line of defense for workers is the EU’s stringent data laws, known as the General Data Protection Regulation, which says workers have the right not to be “subject to a decision based solely on automated processing, including profiling.”

This seems to have some bite. In 2020, Hamburg’s data protection authority fined Swedish clothing giant H&M €35 million for profiling employees in records that included data about religious beliefs, details of health conditions and family problems. 

In a win for data and workers’ rights campaigners, Spain passed a new law regulating online delivery platforms like Uber and Deliveroo, which requires them to inform labor unions of how algorithms affect their working conditions and includes provisions about algorithmic transparency.

Ponce Del Castillo said workers need to get AI-savvy to protect themselves. 

“It doesn’t mean that they have to become AI experts or computer scientists, but they can well understand the impacts and the risks of this emerging technology at the workplace and in the tasks they produce,” she said.

Trade unions are also waking up to the risks presented by AI in the workplace.

“Technology has been the cornerstone of why trade unionism in Europe came out, because the Industrial Revolution initiated automation. And that’s exactly what we’re seeing today. It’s the same automation but for things we don’t see,” she said.

*Photo-illustration by Ricardo Tomás for POLITICO

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