The falling cost of sophisticated surveillance systems is giving Little Brother (by which I mostly mean Corporate America) disturbing new powers of observation, Esther Kaplan reports in the March issue of Harper’s. In The Spy Who Fired Me, she details the rise of telematics, a growth sector of IT leveraging the Internet of things to spy on workers’ most minute movements.
Kaplan cites examples of workers clocking in with thumbprint scans and having to adapt their lives to algorithm-generated schedules on short notice. At UPS, one of the biggest adopters of telematics, drivers have real-time data on their activities beamed back to their supervisors who can sit and watch the stream like a Twitter feed: stop times, seatbelt use, package delivery times, truck speed.
If you’re thinking this ability to monitor workers so closely would lead companies to try and push them harder, Kaplan says you’re right.
“In industry after industry, this data collection is part of an expensive, high-tech effort to squeeze every last drop of productivity from corporate workforces, an effort that pushes employees to their mental, emotional, and physical limits.”
It’s a bleak picture, for sure. Some of it gave me pause - a statistic Kaplan sites saying that 45 percent of employers monitor the keystrokes had me wanting some deeper explanation (I would have been surprised if 45 percent of employers know what a keystroke logger even is). And not that it isn’t often trumpeted elsewhere, but big data does have the potential for many positive uses, like monitoring and reducing waste to improve environmental sustainability.
But unquestionably, the powerful data-gathering tools now in reach for companies need to be used carefully especially when applied to monitoring workers - or there will be, and should be, pushback and rage against the machines (even if it’s the people behind the machines who deserve the rage). A lot of these technologies constitute serious invasions of privacy, and some (oDesk’s “Work Diary”) are designed, intentionally or not, to encourage workers to put in more hours than they get paid for.
One of the most interesting things about the article is the hacks some UPS employees are said to use to beat the system - ways to shave off time that it can’t monitor. Human beings always find the holes in a system, and that’s not a bad thing.
You can hear an interview with Esther Kaplan on Bay Area public radio here: