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Remote workers find ways to trick ‘bossware’ spying

Workplace surveillance is nothing new. Nor is resistance to it.

The idea that people needed constant observation if they were to work efficiently goes back to early manufacturing in the early 1900s and the emergence of Taylorism. But since Covid, surveillance has moved from the office into the home.

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Working from home, often cited as a sea change for employees who can alter their work/life balance, is, in fact, a double-edged sword. Many enthusiastic adherents to the WFH shift now realise it comes at a high cost to personal autonomy and freedom.

Put simply, when a home becomes an office, it isn’t an office; it remains home. But when employers can monitor consensually or non-consensually your daily life at home, your home is no longer a private haven from the world but a new source of coercion and scrutiny.

This is why pushback is both inevitable and welcome.

The monitoring of workers at home has increased dramatically during the Covid pandemic. The term ‘bossware’ has since joined the employment nomenclature. This is the increasing use of keyboard or mouse-tracking software (which may or may not include the use of PC or laptop video cameras) to monitor employee activity when they’re on the clock, especially at home.

For employers, deploying keylogger software that records every keystroke a worker makes, including unsent emails and private passwords, is justified in the main as a proxy for measuring productivity. However, hidden monitoring software specially designed to be as difficult to detect and remove as possible makes this surveillance more problematic. At a technical level, as the Electronic Frontier Foundation points out, “these products are indistinguishable from stalkerware.” Stalking your employees is not what we might term a great trust-enabler.

It is uncertain how many employers choose invisible monitoring. They don’t tend to advertise this. However, there are cases where this may be justified. For example, companies dealing with sensitive data often have legal obligations to ensure data isn’t leaked or stolen from company computers. For off-site workers, this may necessitate a certain level of on-device monitoring. In these cases, employers should make this explicit, but such monitoring should be proportionate and specific to the problem they are trying to solve.

During the pandemic, however, monitoring has revolved increasingly around tracking employees’ time at their computers and what they are doing while working. Increasingly, homeworkers are being treated as infants, like how parents use software to monitor their children’s use of the internet at home.

Not surprisingly, infantilised employees have begun to push back.

The example of Tech8USA – a supplier of a mouse mover – demonstrates this. The company had initially started selling the devices in late 2018 with an eye toward video game players who didn’t want to get signed out of a game when taking a short break. Before the pandemic, sales were modest. Two months into the lockdown, they experienced double-digit growth. And as Diana Rodriguez, a spokesperson from Tech8USA, explained, even as people have returned to offices, sales haven’t slowed down. 

The mouse mover is explicitly advertised as an employer monitoring evasion device: “The Mouse Mover prevents your computer from going to sleep by randomly moving your optical mouse. It prevents ‘Away’ status on Lync, Zoom, Skype, WebEx etc. and keeps you showing ‘Online.’”

Mouse mimicking software that does a similar job, and mouse mover videos on YouTube, show an increased uptake across the globe. A year ago, the top three videos were viewed close to half a million times. Search Amazon for ‘mouse mover jiggler automatic undetectable’, and you will discover over 77 products for sale (a reflection of how many Chinese companies have also spotted the opportunity and have moved aggressively into the market).

This pushback by employees raises questions about the future of trust in the corporation and the WFH culture. Without reading too much into this, this passive fightback offers some grounds for optimism.

At the very least, it shows that people still value the privacy of their homes, their autonomy, and their freedom. They might not be on the streets demonstrating against authoritarian restrictions, but they are silently pushing back, not voting with their feet – more sitting back while their moving mouse jigglers allow them to escape the constant gaze of their employers.

I know what I’m giving to friends and family for Christmas. Plug in and free your body and soul.

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.

© 2021, paradox. All rights reserved.

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