It seems that every week there’s a news story about a data breach, or shockingly invasive snooping policy from some company or other. We’re in the age of data-driven productivity, and modern business employs analytics and tracking as a natural part of doing things.

In any business, you have to continuously monitor operations to make sure everyone's doing the right things - that’s just common sense. In theory, knowing as much as possible about worker’s activities seems like a good idea for proactive bosses.

But companies are now starting to seek data about their workers’ professional and personal lives. Data collection is always useful - but can it go too far? How much data is too much?

When companies know too much

A recent story showed how Activision Blizzard, a video game publisher, tracked health data of their pregnant employees, in return for paying them $1 per day. The workers used a third-party app that allowed them to log information on sleep patterns, diet, mood, weight, and even intimate data about their reproductive activities.

The data was aggregated and anonymised, then accessed by Activision Blizzard, who could use it to gain insight into "how many workers have faced high-risk pregnancies, have given birth prematurely, the medical questions they researched, and the planned length of their maternity leave.”

A large corporate like this could use the data to forecast absences and make other decisions depending on their workers’ health. It gives them insight into productivity and also, in theory, could be used to influence decisions about insurance.

While it is a voluntary scheme, the financial incentives clearly drove participation - and the company has also reportedly offered monetary incentives to track workers' diets, sleep and mental health. On the surface there’s no offense being committed - but there is cause for concern.

Is it voluntary, or “voluntary”? If management push it too hard, it could make privacy-concerned workers feel pressured into signing up, especially if their colleagues join. In a stressful work environment, social pressure can cause people to do things they don’t want to. And programs like these always pose a threat of data breaches.

The ‘pregnancy and parenting club’ Bounty was recently fined £400,000 for illegally sharing personal information belonging to 14 million people. According to the ICO, “the personal information shared was not only of potentially vulnerable, new mothers or mothers-to-be but also of very young children, including the birth date and sex of a child.”

This breach wasn’t caused by hacking - it was from deliberate company action. And it makes you think - unless you read the terms and conditions very closely, your data might be vulnerable to many outside parties without you knowing. Even then, can you trust it to be a perfectly safe system?

Software panopticons

The rise of remote working has brought an inevitable emergence of remote monitoring software. There’s loads of different products available - some that take regular screenshots of employees’ screens, some that track the applications used and their web history, and some that work on a clocking-in / clocking-out system.

One such provider called SniperSpy caught my eye for simply having such a horrible name. A quick look on their website shows they were closed down after a security breach leaked a load of personal data (including private affairs that were leaked to the media). It hardly fills you with confidence in the idea.

Things like this point a company culture in the wrong direction. It assumes that having a spreadsheet open on a screen equals productive time - which just isn’t true. This kind of thing can’t monitor in-person communication, anything done on paper, or simply taking time to think. (I can’t work without occasionally staring out of the window, working out the best way to phrase a sentence, or letting my mind wander for creative inspiration.) It presumes workers are inherently guilty, with minor lapses in concentration worthy of punishment.

If managers can’t see what value their workers are bringing to the company without constantly looking over their shoulder with suspicion, then something’s gone drastically wrong.

A vending machine company in the US made waves in 2017 when it offered to implant RFID chips into workers’ hands for free, allowing them to open doors, log into their computers, and pay for food in the staff canteen with a wave of their hands. Early adopters in such schemes see themselves as ‘biohackers’, but if your company knows your exact location at all times, how can you not feel constantly under surveillance?

How far can surveillance employment go?

Would you let your boss see your Fitbit data? Would you take a job if it required a sleep sensor in your bedroom, ensuring you always got 7 hours each night?

How about weight or diet tracking? If your boss could see your internet search history 24 hours a day, would you feel comfortable?

On the one hand, workers need to be capable in physically demanding jobs - for example, manual labourers or police officers. Cognitively demanding jobs do need well-rested, healthy employees to produce good work. But as a manager, can’t you just observe the results of their work without needing to know their exact resting heart rate and lung capacity?

I think we all need to be vigilant about who we share data with and why. Is this trend something that needs to be stopped, or is it inevitable?

Photo by Jason Dent on Unsplash