The Big Snoop

By Robert Goldman

July 23, 2020 6 min read

Working from home has many advantages. Protecting your privacy isn't one of them.

It's true!

In addition to their supportive emails and enthusiastic team Zoom meetings, your managers may soon be telling you to install surveillance software on your computer.

Even worse, they'll do it themselves — without telling you.

Or so I learned from a news story on NPR by Jackie Ferrentino.

For one hapless e-commerce worker in Brooklyn, the big snoop began with a demand that employees "install software called Hubstaff immediately on their personal computers so it could track their mouse movements and keyboard strokes, and record the webpages they visit."

(Friendly warning: If you're foolish enough to read this highly subversive column on your office computer, better start writing your resignation letter right now. Don't worry about hitting send. Your boss will have already read it and will be actively interviewing for your job.)

Time Doctor is another piece of surveillance software loved by employers and loathed by employees. According to a marketing staffer in a Minnesota marketing company: "It downloads videos of employees' screens while they work. It also can enable a computer's webcam to take a picture of the employee every 10 minutes."

Does the software understand that we're human beings, and we do occasionally have to take a break, like, say, to go to the bathroom? The Time Doctor will see you now. As the Minnesota marketing staffer explained, "If you go to the bathroom or whatever, a pop-up will come up and it'll say, 'You have 60 seconds to start working again or we're going to pause your time.'"

For an hourly worker, that could make a bathroom break very expensive.

You won't be surprised to learn that both surveilled employees interviewed would only speak to reporter Ferrentino if their identities would be kept anonymous. Nor will you be surprised to learn that the people who make surveillance software have no clue as to why anyone would possibly harbor negative thoughts of what its critics call "tattleware."

In fact, Brad Miller of Awareness Technologies "bristles at that description."

"If you're not working or doing something wrong, then I guess it will tattle on you," explains Bristling Brad, "but I don't think that's really how companies that are buying (the software) think of it as."

No question! Companies aren't spying on their workers because they don't trust them. Companies are spying because they care. They want to make sure they don't miss an employee's birthday and lose the opportunity to send a muffin basket.

If you tend to be a tad cynical about the aims and claims of employers, you will not be happy to learn that tattleware will be with us for quite a while. Even when you can return to your office, you probably won't be able to return your surveillance software.

This will make office life much more difficult and much less rewarding. If an employee can't steal a few moments of respite by exercising their natural right to hide in the supply closet for an afternoon, work will be simply, well, unworkable.

And if you're hoping that surveillance at this level is illegal, don't waste your keystrokes on emailing a lawyer. As Paul Stephens, director of policy and advocacy with Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, explains: "There's not a constitutional issue here. There aren't a whole lot of legal protections for employees who are being monitored."

To which I say, good going, Founding Fathers. Perhaps if you had thrown away your quill pens and written the Constitution with laptops, we'd have some decent protection for our keystrokes.

While employers may think that micromanaging their employees will boost productivity, the result could be the exact opposite. According to the overly surveilled e-commerce staffer in Brooklyn, the company's insistence on installing tracking software on her teammates' computers "really destroyed morale for everyone."

"If this is how they're going to treat us," she said, "why go the extra mile?"

She is going the extra mile. She has resigned and is looking for a new job.

Personally, I think employers will get better results by skipping fancy-schmancy technology solutions. Instead of worrying about keystrokes, they should insist every employee hand over their house keys. That way, managers can come into your house at any time and see for themselves what you are or aren't doing.

Hey, it works on "Law & Order."

It may be unnerving when your manager bursts through your door, shouting, "You're busted, dirtbag!" but it certainly shows they care.

Bob Goldman was an advertising executive at a Fortune 500 company. He offers a virtual shoulder to cry on at [email protected] To find out more about Bob Goldman and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at

Photo credit: DarkWorkX at Pixabay

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