The UK government is facing calls to urgently update guidance on workplace practices following an increase in the use of remote-monitoring technologies by businesses.

The UK Labour Party, alongside professional trade union Prospect, are campaigning for swift changes to the Code of Employment Practices published by the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO), arguing that employees require new rights around how their data is collected and processed by employers.

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It comes following research by Skillcast and YouGov in December last year that suggested as many as one in five businesses are now tracking employees online via digital surveillance tools, or otherwise have plans to introduce such technology.

Andrew Pakes, director of communications and research at Prospect, told TechRepublic that the UK risked “sleepwalking into a world of surveillance” if the government failed to act.

“The law is clear that workers have a right to be informed if their data is being collected for surveillance purposes, and we have a right to be consulted,” Pakes said.

“Our worry is that, too often, that consultation isn’t happening…If we’re going to be using digital technology to create a national framework for the future of work, we’ve got to ensure that we are amplifying the benefits and having serious conversations about minimising the risks. Surveillance is one of them.”

The debate around the use of tools to track employee productivity has grown since the pivot to remote work in 2020. With employers no longer able to oversee work directly, some have turned to software as a means of keeping tabs on what their employees are up to.

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These tools often provide detailed insight into how employees are spending their time online, including time spent on particular websites, the ability to remotely view a user’s desktop, and the ability to record what users type – known as ‘keylogging’.

This has sparked fresh debates around employee privacy and data rights, as well as concerns around how such monitoring sits within the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).

Scoring productivity

Microsoft caused a stir in November 2020 when its ‘productivity score’ feature for Microsoft 365 caught the attention of privacy campaigners, who argued that the feature – which allowed managers to track employee’s online activity via a dashboard – was invasive.

Microsoft subsequently reeled in the feature, with Microsoft 365 corporate vice president, Jared Spataro, suggesting that it had been intended not as a means for monitoring employees, but rather to help businesses identify areas of friction within remote working.

Pakes said more scrutiny of digital monitoring tools was needed now that a large chunk of the professional workforce was working from home.

“Often these technologies are being dressed up as about helping productivity, about supporting pubic health during a time of crisis, but actually they’re overstepping the mark, and we’ve got to be clear in law and in employment practices about where those red lines exist,” he said.

“[Productivity score] was sold as a really exciting product for employers, that you could check what your workers are doing. That sets alarm bells off to me. What it says is that workers don’t have a seat at the table when these issues are being discussed, either by big software companies or inside businesses, and that we need to get a better understanding of what the power of these tools are.”

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Remote-monitoring software has been in use for some time and is popular within industries that hold and process valuable data, such as financial services. In these instances, such tools can allow businesses to ensure important information is not shared outside the organization, as well as prevent data loss.

The worry is that broader application of this technology will make more invasive monitoring techniques the norm, and could lead to companies introducing surveillance tools without properly informing employees, or conducting necessary Data Protection Impact Assessments (DPIAs).

Research from Prospect in December found that two-thirds of workers were uncomfortable with monitoring and surveillance technology being used while they were working remotely.

Labour added that AI tools were increasingly being used to inform redundancy decisions, which put disabled workers and those caring for children at increased risk of discrimination by computer algorithms.

Chi Onwurah MP, Labour’s shadow digital minister, suggested the introduction of new remote working technology was at risk of outstripping current ICO guidance, which she said was “woefully outdated in light of the accelerated move to remote working and rapid advancements in technology.”

Onwurah said in a statement: “The bottom line is that workers should not be digitally monitored without their informed consent, and there should be clear rules, rights and expectations for both businesses and workers.

“Ministers must urgently provide better regulatory oversight of online surveillance software to ensure people have the right to privacy whether in their workplace or home – which are increasingly one and the same.”

The use of remote-monitoring software increased in 2020 as people began working from home.
Image: scyther5