ARTICLE

By: Johanna Kinnock

ILLUSTRATIONS: Morten Voigt

Employers are tracking us. Let’s track them back

Image description

Employers are using tech to track their employees ever more closely. Time for workers to reclaim their own data – and turn the surveillance back on their taskmasters, says Christina Colclough. Here’s what you need to know about your data, your rights, and how you can make sure they are protected.

Takeaways

  • Employers are using technology to track employees.
  • They use the data they mine to decide who to hire, fire and promote.
  • Data gives companies more power over employees – which is why workers must respond.
  • Workplace data expert Christina Colclough wants workers to take back their data.
  • Colclough has created an app, WeClock, that lets workers track their own data and share it with unions.

Monday morning, 9am. You sit down at your desk and open an email. Even though your boss isn’t around, software may be quietly noting what time you log in. As you start writing, the keyboard might be tracking your typing speed. As you walk to get coffee, surveillance sensors (ostensibly installed for office planning purposes) could be observing your movements. When you leave and go home, your company phone could be counting your steps. Maybe you should have called in sick, you think. But even if you had, your absence might not escape the notice of your employer’s algorithms.

This is the scenario that Christina Colclough paints for 5. The average employee, she says, is having their data harvested heavily by their employer. And yes, we should be worried. Research firm Gartner says half of companies were already using “non-traditional” listening techniques like email scraping and workspace tracking in 2018, and they estimate the figure to have risen to around 80% by now. Whether you’re a nurse, schoolteacher or construction worker, your data is up for grabs, Christina warns.

A data gap has opened up between employers and employees, says Christina Colclough. Photo courtesy of Christina Colclough.

Christina is a small, bubbly woman with an infectious laugh. Don’t be fooled. She’s also one of the sharpest and most influential figures in the union world when it comes to tech and workers’ rights. She has worked for the international trade union federation UNI Global Union, looking at how workers can reclaim their data, has advised the European parliament on the gig economy, and recently set up her own business, advising unions, organisations and governments on digital issues including data rights. But as well as making sure employees and governments do right by their workers, she is also helping workers to harness the power in their own hands: by developing tech to help them track their own data.

“We’ve sleepwalked into this situation. Tech has run amok”

As Christina puts it, “tech is not born good or evil”, but right now, it’s getting out of control. Tech can be governed for the greater good, but for this to happen, workers and their unions need to push back to ensure that their whole online existence doesn’t become their employers’ property. She wants the workers of the world to seize what is theirs: namely, their data.

Knowledge is power

“We have sleepwalked into this situation,” says Christina wistfully. “Tech has run amok in the last decades.” Indeed, it’s hard to ignore how technology has become an all-consuming aspect of modern life, while laws struggle to keep up. Many of the services that we all rely on are run by huge private businesses with more power and money than many countries, and require us to sign our data away with little understanding of where it really goes.

In the modern economy, data is power. For advertisers and marketers, it’s the knowledge of what someone is likely to buy online or do after work. It’s how they parent their kids, style their living room and like their eggs in the morning. For employers, the power they hope to gain from intelligent data systems is even more direct: the promise of employee surveillance is to boost productivity, gain competitive advantage and thereby grow profits. It also cements the position of power that employers have over employees – hence Christina’s concerns.

While surveys suggest that the majority of employers conduct some kind of monitoring, it’s hard to get a more detailed picture than that, since employees often don’t have a clear idea of what’s going on. What is certain is that interest in employee monitoring systems has “gone up tenfold” due to Covid-19, says Christina. As working patterns were turned on their head, “tracking systems were the perfect way for your company to know what you’re doing when you’re working from home”.

Are you being watched? The majority of employers are tracking their workers in one way or another.

In Europe, the recently introduced General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), represented a huge step for individual rights to data. But the potential risks associated with workplace surveillance mean it needs its own specific set of prohibitions, Christina believes. In the negotiations on GDPR, amendments that would have given workers greater rights over their data were not adopted, including a clause that would have specifically prohibited optical or audio monitoring of areas in workplaces that are not accessible to the public, including changing rooms and toilets.

But employees elsewhere have it worse than in Europe, says Christina. Thailand introduced a data protection law last year which makes no specific demands of employers, while Australia’s law takes a similar approach at national level, leaving it to the country’s various state governments to decide whether to bring in additional rules to protect workers.

Situations like these, Christina believes, are “the result of a concerted effort of powerful lobbyists”. “Overlooking workers in data protection law is an expression of the value of this data for corporations.”

Should we care?

Most of us are probably at least dimly aware that our data is being mined, and that we have little control over it. For those of us who’ve grown up with this, the notion of actually controlling this information seems antiquated. So the question 5 really wants to know the answer to is, if a 23-year-old user of Facebook, Instagram and so on, has had their data mined for most of their life, why should they care?

Christina’s answer is simple: “They’ll make decisions about you before you do.” In other words, you’ll have certain opportunities presented to or taken away from you based on past actions. “The problem is that it’s affecting future generations’ life choices,” she says. The gradual personalisation of your feed might be subtle, but it can be extremely consequential. From not advertising an organic product because you live in a certain neighbourhood, to not showing you certain job offers because of your gender – algorithms are the invisible hand guiding your life choices and opportunities. They narrow your path even as you walk along it.

This can have consequences in all areas of life, but particularly in the workplace.

Having mined your data consistently for the three years you’ve worked for him, your boss could fire you based on data you didn’t even realise you were giving up. Equally scary: the HR department may be consuming application data into its recruiting systems that deems you a bad candidate based on its automated reading of your specific application. In other words, if you’re a 23-year-old woman with a bachelors-level education and the company has had bad experiences with people fitting that profile, it could bode badly for you. This has led to a few horror stories, including Amazon’s employment algorithm that was scrapped in 2018 for hiring mainly men – because that was the gender of the majority of current employees.

“If we don’t watch the algorithms carefully, they escalate and can become extremely biased”, Christina says. There’s a veil of mystery surrounding what the algorithms – both at your workplace’s HR department and on your private feed – look like. And what’s worse, there’s a data gap: a huge disparity between what companies know about workers and what workers know about themselves.

Mine your own business

So what can be done about this situation? It’s time, Christina says, for the “workers to start kicking back”. This is the idea behind Christina’s new app, WeClock (available now for Android devices and in beta for Apple devices) which promises to “give work a reality check”. Using the app, workers can track things like how far they have to travel to work, whether they’re taking their allotted breaks, and how long they spend working out of hours. They can then share this data with their union, which can use it, not to sell them things, but as ammunition for the next negotiation. It also provides an accurate and up-to-date source of aggregate data about key issues affecting worker wellbeing.

The most recent test of WeClock helped to reveal the risks being taken by delivery workers in New York, who were cycling around and interacting with dozens of people at the height of the Covid-19 outbreak. “We overlaid knowledge about where the workers were going with ‘what are the number of people who have Covid-19 in New York?’ It was clear that these delivery workers were in very vulnerable work conditions.”

“Algorithms will make decisions about you before you do”

Ideally, Christina says, it would be unions who owned employees’ work data, which they could then allow employers to view (but not necessarily keep) on agreed terms. That relies on workers being unionised, which relies on them feeling a sense of common cause and solidarity. Unfortunately, even the word “worker” has fallen somewhat out of fashion. When giving talks, Christina often asks her audience to “put your hand up if you’re a worker”. About 70% of people will usually put their hand up. Then she’ll say “put your hand up if you’re employed somewhere”, and about 95% of people will put their hand up. “I say to them: if you’re not a worker, what are you?” She believes workers have to see what they have in common if they are going to have a chance up against the power of big tech.

For Christina, it’s not about the technology, it’s about who is in control of it. She wants workers to question what they are being asked to accept as the new normal of workplace tracking. “Digitisation is here, so data will be created,” she says. “But who should have control and access over that data? Why exclusively the employers?”

Find out more

  • Download the WeClock app for Android here, or join the test for the Apple version here.
  • Listen to Christina talk with Azeem Azhar about empowering workers in the digital future, on Harvard Business Review’s Exponential View podcast.
  • A recorded webinar from the Digital Leaders conference, where Christina discusses why workers should be involved in the governance of data-driven systems.