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Your company has long been able to monitor your emails and your idle web browsing, but a group of tech start-ups now say they can crunch all the data to reveal exactly how useful you really are.

Taking logs of computer activity, or even screenshots, and running them through big data analytics programs allows these firms to create detailed reports for executives about productivity, they claim. How employers use the data, they add, is up to them.

According to Gartner, more than half of companies with over $750m in annual sales used “non-traditional” monitoring techniques on staff in 2018, while the workforce analytics industry will be worth nearly $2bn by 2025, according to San Francisco’s Grand Review Research.

Products developed by companies such as Activtrak, which raised $20m in a series A funding round in March 2019, allow employers to track which websites staff visit, how long they spend on sites deemed “unproductive” and set alarms triggered by content considered dangerous.

Teramind, which offers similar services, is advertised as a tool to “identify the laggards or high performers” doing tasks such as data entry and answering customer support questions. To quantify productivity, “profiles” of employee behaviour — which can be as granular as mapping an individual’s daily activity — are generated from “vast” amounts of data. 

Reports do not include personal details like sex or race, but companies can choose to integrate their Teramind data with other data sets.

“Our tool is extremely powerful, it can be used in non-ethical way,” said Isaac Kohen, chief executive at Teramind. But he promised that “spying” is “not the vision.” Insights derived from aggregate data are more useful than homing in on individual employees, he added.

On risk detection, the company said its technology could help bank compliance teams check that traders were not sending insider information over Facebook, by using AI and machine learning to interpret the text on their computer screens. 

Customers have included a US law enforcement agency monitoring registered sex offenders’s laptops, and schools checking for online activity suggestive of radicalisation.

As with what is deemed “unproductive”, what triggers an alarm is up to the customer.

Such tools have raised concerns about unwarranted invasions of privacy. The data have obvious HR use cases, with ethical implications, said eMarketer analyst Victoria Petrock. 

If combined with personal details, such as someone’s age and sex, the data could allow employers to develop a nuanced picture of ideal employees, choose whom they considered most useful and help with promotion and firing decisions.

Already, companies such as Microsoft-backed Zing Tech analyse “resume and social profiles” of job applicants to predict best-fit candidates. 

Software developers say what customers do with the data is up to them, and employers bear the legal responsibility for misuse.

But writing in the New York Times in April, former Google research scientist Jack Poulson said “the time has passed when tech companies can simply build tools, write algorithms and amass data without regard to who uses the technology and for what purpose.”

Some technology, including Teramind’s and Activtrak’s, permits employers to take periodic computer screenshots or screen-videos — either with employees’ knowledge or in “stealth” mode — and use AI to assess what it captures.

Depending on the employer’s settings, screenshot analysis can alert them to things like violent content or time spent on LinkedIn job adverts. 

But screenshots could also include the details of private messages, social media activity or credit card details in ecommerce checkouts, which would then all be saved to the employer’s database.

To make screenshots less invasive, some tools include redaction features that blur out sensitive information, such as passport or social security numbers. Teramind developed its own, while Activtrak uses Google’s redaction tool. But neither requires the tools to be used, and customers can choose what to redact.

Meanwhile, smart assistants, such as Amazon’s Alexa for Business, are being introduced into workplaces, but it is unclear how much of office life the devices might record, or what records employers might be able to access. Amazon’s terms of use say employers do not have access to voice recordings or transcripts, but can delete recordings from shared devices. Amazon declined to provide further details.

“If you don’t want Alexa to hear, unplug the device,” said eMarketer’s Ms Petrock. “If you don’t want your employer knowing what you’re doing on these devices, you shouldn’t be using them.”

In 2017, a paper by researchers at Berkeley questioned whether big data mined from workers “invariably leads to innovation and efficiency” — and if worker privacy should be sacrificed “for the greater good of the company”. 

Discuss with the journalist

If you are conscious of monitoring in your own workplace, how does it affect staff and the company? On a broader note, do you think workplace monitoring is an effective way to solve companies' problems? If not, what would work better? Share your thoughts in the comments below. Camilla Hodgson will be responding through the day. If you have a tip about employers misusing personal data, you can reach out to Camilla privately at camilla.hodgson@ft.com.

Paula Brantner, senior adviser at Workplace Fairness, said invasive tools could prompt employment lawsuits, but “we’re not on the front lines of that yet.” 

There is often a lag of several years before new technologies are challenged in court, she said, pointing to the handful of US cases that appeared around 2015 in relation to employee GPS tracking. Contracts often stipulate an employer has the right to monitor staff at work, she added.

“We could see something down the line if we see a dramatic misuse, but some people will think, ‘of course they’re going to track us,’” said Ms Brantner. 

“It’s a concern that should be growing but isn’t. People have forfeited a lot of their privacy rights.”

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