Private Channel: How much is too much surveillance at work?

For employees, you can accept the policies as presented—or quit.

September 1, 2023
I’ve started freelancing more recently and am pretty disturbed by the surveillance requirements on some of the larger job platforms. To accept some assignments on Upwork, for instance, I have to agree to let the platform take a screenshot of my computer screen every 10 minutes. What are my options here?
—🎶I always feel like somebody's watchin' me🎶

Oof and hello. It’s #private-channel, your occasional work advice column, back with a thorny question—and a disappointing answer. “There’s not a lot that employees can do,” says Edgar Ndjatou, the executive director of Workplace Fairness and a longtime employment law attorney.

Some level of surveillance has always been a part of American workplaces: security cameras, keys or badges that allow or restrict entry, even clocking in and out with a time card. And on a computer, “there are understandable business reasons to monitor who accesses files or folders,” says Ndjatou, in order “to protect proprietary information.”

But working from home has brought business-world surveillance into personal spaces at an unprecedented rate. “During COVID, I heard of some workplaces where you’d have to be on Zoom on day—you’d be on video all day—so your boss can see what you are doing at home,” adds Ndjatou.

Because there are almost no legal protections for employees who are monitored while they are working, it’s up to individuals to determine how much surveillance is too much. And when it’s too much? Your only recourse is to quit. Or, if you know about it ahead of time—in the case of Upwork—to not take the job at all.

Ndjatou urges employees who are learning about their workplace’s monitoring policies to try and understand, first, the business case for this level of surveillance and, second, how the technology itself works. This is to better prepare for conversations you may wish to attempt with your manager or higher-up to advocate for less or different kinds of monitoring. Still, it’s not your call—it’ll always be up to the company.

“There is something to be said for keeping your professional and personal lives separate,” says Ndjatou, proposing different scenarios that might be visible from a Zoom call while you are working from work. “What if your boss discovers you’re in a same sex relationship, or an interracial relationship, or you have additional responsibilities they didn’t know about?” Those are situations where employees might be protected by existing antidiscrimination laws—though they usually require proof of intent, a notoriously difficult standard to meet in a courtroom. For this reason, Ndjatou urges employees—regardless of their workplace’s monitoring technologies—to be aware of how information is collected and how it’s stored. “Keep your personal and business data separate. Use a separate phone. Keep your laptops separate. Be mindful of your environment. Set up your workstation away from visible identifiers of your personal life. Opt for a blurred or virtual background.”

Will the legal landscape change to better protect employees working from home? “You are seeing, at the state level, an increase in interest in this issue,” says Ndjatou, but not much progress has been made. As for employers, he recommends a less-is-more approach to employee surveillance.

“At the end of the day, if you are getting results, you shouldn’t get too caught up in how the sausage gets made.”

Email with your own work-related queries.

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