Now that the terms “ransomware” and “malware” have been added to the dictionary of the 21st century, it is time to suggest another: “bossware”. Bossware is software that managers can use to monitor employees at any time and to automate their monitoring. But unlike computer viruses that aim to damage our machines, bossware is potentially dangerous to our body and mind.
While there isn’t good data on how many companies are using bossware to monitor their employees, we can say with confidence that these tools are widespread and growing faster and faster. Three years ago, a survey of 239 large companies found that more than half were already using “non-traditional surveillance techniques” such as “analyzing the text of emails and social media messages, questioning who is meeting whom, biometric Collect data and understand how employees “use their workplace.”
That was before the COVID-19 pandemic forced millions of people to work remotely. During this time, companies tried to find new ways to monitor and manage their workforce.
Warehouse workers who pause for a moment to use the toilet or to catch their breath may be flagged by Bossware, which will record this as a “leisure activity”. Drivers stopping between deliveries to use the toilet can be tracked by GPS sensors that record where and for how long they stopped. Even employees who work from home are not safe from this intrusive surveillance. There is a growing industry of companies developing and selling software that can track every click and keystroke by remote employees, regularly take screenshots of employees ‘computer screens, and even use webcams and microphones to track employees’ physical movements and activities to monitor in their own four walls.
Employers feed the data gathered by these systems into algorithmic management platforms that automate tasks traditionally performed by human managers, including assessing employee productivity and performance and making disciplinary decisions.
In a new report, I look at how these tools – which aim to target every possible loss in productivity of workers – threaten not only their privacy, but also their health, safety and wellbeing.
Bossware discourages employees from engaging in lawful, health-promoting behavior, such as taking breaks to avoid fatigue or using the toilet. A faster work pace with fewer breaks increases the risk of physical injury, especially from repetitive movements. These practices also increase the workload that occurs when workers are faced with high job demands but have little control over their work.
Decades of research link occupational stress to a wide variety of mental and physical health disorders, including depression, anxiety, ulcers, and cardiovascular death.
The health and safety threat posed by Bossware is particularly acute for disabled workers, especially since the uniform standards enforced by Bossware systems do not take into account the specific health and safety requirements of these workers.
Belatedly, it appears that regulators may catch up. In May, Washington State filed a landmark lawsuit against Amazon fined the tech giant $ 7,000 for alleged health and safety violations at its Dupont, Washington, warehouse. Ordinarily, a tiny fine from a law enforcement agency wouldn’t be anything special as the authorities hand out thousands every year. But the May quote could be the first of its kind in the U.S. to link the alleged security breach to Amazon’s use of automated systems to enforce its productivity standards.
Of course, a $ 7,000 fine is unlikely to change the company’s behavior, underscoring that the laws in force are simply not enough to address the scale of the threat that the exploitative use of bossware poses to the health and safety of the population Representing workers.
Current laws were not designed for a world where employers use technology to continuously monitor their employees, dictate a strenuous pace of work, and effectively deprive workers of the freedom to take breaks or determine when and how to perform their assigned duties of the working day.
Most importantly, OSHA has no standards that require employers to take rest, prevent repetitive motion injuries, or protect workers from the well-documented health effects of workload. OSHA also does not protect employees who work from home.
Given the potential dangers associated with the use of bossware by employers, additional laws and regulations are needed to fully protect the welfare of workers. The EEOC should issue formal guidelines for employers warning against using bossware to introduce or enforce rigid workplace standards that discriminate against disabled workers.
In the meantime, workers and their lawyers should make every effort to understand workers’ rights under applicable law. The Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSH) generally requires employers to maintain a safe workplace, and its regulations require employers to allow workers to use toilets immediately when necessary. Workers with disabilities enjoy strong protection under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which requires employers to adequately accommodate disabled workers and avoid practices and standards that discriminate against them.
Bossware is getting more sophisticated and cheaper, and its risks require careful scrutiny by regulators and the public alike.
Employers are already following today’s employees with a previously unimaginable level of detail. Imagine how much more intrusive bossware gets if policy makers don’t take it seriously. Our physical and mental health requires lawmakers to act now.
Matthew Scherer is Senior Policy Counsel for Employee Privacy at the Center for Democracy & Technology.