COVID-19 has pushed millions of people to work from home, and a flock of companies offering software - or "bossware" - for tracking workers has swooped in to pitch their products to employers.
This statement was originally published on eff.org on 30 June 2020.
COVID-19 has pushed millions of people to work from home, and a flock of companies offering software for tracking workers has swooped in to pitch their products to employers across the country.
The services often sound relatively innocuous. Some vendors bill their tools as “automatic time tracking” or “workplace analytics” software. Others market to companies concerned about data breaches or intellectual property theft. We’ll call these tools, collectively, “bossware.” While aimed at helping employers, bossware puts workers’ privacy and security at risk by logging every click and keystroke, covertly gathering information for lawsuits, and using other spying features that go far beyond what is necessary and proportionate to manage a workforce.
This is not OK. When a home becomes an office, it remains a home. Workers should not be subject to nonconsensual surveillance or feel pressured to be scrutinized in their own homes to keep their jobs.
What can they do?
Bossware typically lives on a computer or smartphone and has privileges to access data about everything that happens on that device. Most bossware collects, more or less, everything that the user does. We looked at marketing materials, demos, and customer reviews to get a sense of how these tools work. There are too many individual types of monitoring to list here, but we’ll try to break down the ways these products can surveil into general categories.
The broadest and most common type of surveillance is “activity monitoring.” This typically includes a log of which applications and websites workers use. It may include who they email or message – including subject lines and other metadata – and any posts they make on social media. Most bossware also records levels of input from the keyboard and mouse – for example, many tools give a minute-by-minute breakdown of how much a user types and clicks, using that as a proxy for productivity. Productivity monitoring software will attempt to assemble all of this data into simple charts or graphs that give managers a high-level view of what workers are doing.
Every product we looked at has the ability to take frequent screenshots of each worker’s device, and some provide direct, live video feeds of their screens. This raw image data is often arrayed in a timeline, so bosses can go back through a worker’s day and see what they were doing at any given point. Several products also act as a keylogger, recording every keystroke a worker makes, including unsent emails and private passwords. A couple even let administrators jump in and take over remote control of a user’s desktop. These products usually don’t distinguish between work-related activity and personal account credentials, bank data, or medical information.
InterGuard advertises that its software “can be silently and remotely installed, so you can conduct covert investigations [of your workers] and bullet-proof evidence gathering without alarming the suspected wrongdoer.”
Some bossware goes even further, reaching into the physical world around a worker’s device. Companies that offer software for mobile devices nearly always include location tracking using GPS data. At least two services – StaffCop Enterprise and CleverControl – let employers secretly activate webcams and microphones on worker devices.
There are, broadly, two ways bossware can be deployed: as an app that’s visible to (and maybe even controllable by) the worker, or as a secret background process that workers can’t see. Most companies we looked at give employers the option to install their software either way.
Sometimes, workers can see the software that is surveilling them. They may have the option to turn the surveillance on or off, often framed as “clocking in” and “clocking out.” Of course, the fact that a worker has turned off monitoring will be visible to their employer. For example, with Time Doctor, workers may be given the option to delete particular screenshots from their work session. However, deleting a screenshot will also delete the associated work time, so workers only get credit for the time during which they are monitored.
Workers may be given access to some, or all, of the information that’s collected about them. Crossover, the company behind WorkSmart, compares its product to a fitness tracker for computer work. Its interface allows workers to see the system’s conclusions about their own activity presented in an array of graphs and charts.
Different bossware companies offer different levels of transparency to workers. Some give workers access to all, or most, of the information that their managers have. Others, like Teramind, indicate that they are turned on and collecting data, but don’t reveal everything they’re collecting. In either case, it can often be unclear to the user what data, exactly, is being collected, without specific requests to their employer or careful scrutiny of the software itself.
The majority of companies that build visible monitoring software also make products that try to hide themselves from the people they’re monitoring. Teramind, Time Doctor, StaffCop, and others make bossware that’s designed to be as difficult to detect and remove as possible. At a technical level, these products are indistinguishable from stalkerware. In fact, some companies require employers to specifically configure antivirus software before installing their products, so that the worker’s antivirus won’t detect and block the monitoring software’s activity.
This kind of software is marketed for a specific purpose: monitoring workers. However, most of these products are really just general purpose monitoring tools. StaffCop offers a version of their product specifically designed for monitoring children’s use of the Internet at home, and ActivTrak states that their software can also be used by parents or school officials to monitor kids’ activity. Customer reviews for some of the software indicate that many customers do indeed use these tools outside of the office.
Most companies that offer invisible monitoring recommend that it only be used for devices that the employer owns. However, many also offer features like remote and “silent” installation that can load monitoring software on worker computers, without their knowledge, while their devices are outside the office. This works because many employers have administrative privileges on computers they distribute. But for some workers, the company laptop they use is their only computer, so company monitoring is ever-present. There is great potential for misuse of this software by employers, school officials, and intimate partners. And the victims may never know that they are subject to such monitoring.
The table below shows the monitoring and control features available from a small sample of bossware vendors. This isn’t a comprehensive list, and may not be representative of the industry as a whole; we looked at companies that were referred to in industry guides and search results that had informative publicly-facing marketing materials.