"Close, constant surveillance and management through electronic means threaten employees' basic ability to exercise their rights."
Spying @ Home
Ever since the COVID-19 pandemic drove a wave of working from home, companies have been relentless in their efforts to digitally police and spy on remote employees by using what's known as "bossware." That's the pejorative name for software that tracks the websites an employee visits, screenshots their computer screens, and even records their faces and voices.
And now, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), an agency of the federal government, is looking to intervene.
"Close, constant surveillance and management through electronic means threaten employees' basic ability to exercise their rights," said NLRB general counsel Jennifer Abruzzo, in a Monday memo. "I plan to urge the Board to apply the Act to protect employees, to the greatest extent possible, from intrusive or abusive electronic monitoring and automated management practices."
In particular, Abruzzo is worried about how bossware could infringe on workers' rights to unionize. It's not hard to imagine how such invasive surveillance could be used to bust unionization. Even if the technology isn't explicitly deployed to impede organization efforts, the ominous presence of the surveillance on its own can be a looming deterrent, which Abruzzo argues is illegal.
And now is the perfect moment for the NLRB to step in. The use and abuse of worker surveillance tech in general — not just bossware — has been "growing by the minute," Mark Gaston Pearce, executive director of the Workers' Rights Institute at Georgetown Law School, told CBS.
"Employers are embracing technology because technology helps them run a more efficient business," Gaston explained. "… What comes with that is monitoring a lot of things that employers have no business doing."
In some ways, surveillance tech like bossware can be worse than having a nosy, actual human boss. Generally speaking, in a physical workplace employees have an understanding of how much privacy they have (unless they work at a place like Amazon or Walmart, that is).
But when bossware spies on you, who knows how much information an employer could be gathering — or even when they're looking in. And if it surveils an employee's personal computer, which more often than not contains plenty of personal information that a boss has no business seeing, that's especially invasive.
Which is why Abruzzo is pushing to require employers to disclose exactly how much they're tracking.
It's a stern message from the NLRB, but at the end of the day, it's just a memo. We'll have to wait and see how enforcing it pans out.
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