Employers Using “Tattleware” An Invasion Of Privacy or Not?

Many of us have transitioned to working from home during the pandemic. And it looks like this is just the beginning of a historic shift in the job market.

According to a survey from Enterprise Technology Research (ETR), the percentage of workers permanently working from home is expected to double this year. And by 2025, an estimated 70% of the workforce will be working remotely at least five days a month.

What used to be a job perk is becoming the norm. But this new trend is also bringing new problems and concerns.

The Guardian reports that bosses have started turning to “tattleware” to “keep tabs on employees working from home.” And this practice is poised to become a standard feature of remote work. But isn’t this practice a huge invasion of privacy?

The Rise Of Surveillance Software

Surveillance software programs known as “tattleware” or “bossware” have seen a major boom during the pandemic. It was a niche market in a pre-COVID world. But everything changed in March 2020, when employers were forced to put together work-from-home policies on the fly.

In April 2020, Google searches for “remote monitoring” were up 212% over the previous year. In April of this year, those searches had surged another 243%.

The surveillance software market is made up of companies like ActivTrak, Sneek, Time Doctor, Teramind, and Hubstaff. And each one of those companies is reporting similar growth from prospective customers that Google has seen with searches for these types of products.

The sales pitch for this type of software is that it allows teams of workers who are good friends to stay connected while working from home. It also allows managers to supervise workflow. Basically, the software is bringing your workplace to your home office. But the reality is that tattleware allows supervisors to monitor their workers’ every move.

How Does Tattleware Work?

Tattleware gives bosses a variety of options for monitoring the online activity of their workers and assessing their productivity when working from home. These surveillance software programs give employers the power to do things like log webcam screenshots, keystrokes, and an employee’s browsing history.

In the growing bossware market, each platform also attempts to offer special features. FlexiSpy offers call-tapping, Spytech gives access to mobile devices, and NetVizor has a remote takeover feature.

One worker named David told The Guardian that in his first week working from home, his employer added the digital surveillance platform Sneek.

David says that every minute, the program would capture a live photo of him and his co-workers via their company laptop webcams. The constantly changing headshots were all part of a digital conference waiting room wall that everyone on his team could see.

If he clicked on a colleague’s face, it would unilaterally pull David and his co-worker into a video call. If anyone on David’s team caught someone goofing off on company time, they could send a screenshot of the image to a team chat through Sneek’s integration with the Slack messaging platform.

Sneek ended up being a dealbreaker for David, and he quit less than three weeks later. “I signed up to manage their digital marketing,” he says. “Not to livestream my living room.”

The Remote Monitoring Trend Isn’t Slowing Down

Tattleware isn’t the only tool that employers can use to keep an eye on their workers. There’s been a noticeable increase in the number of bosses who are using their in-house IT departments to monitor emails and flag phrases.

If certain employees discuss their “salary” or a “recruiter,” the boss will get an alert that lets them know someone could be looking for a new job.

Then there’s companies like Zoom, who briefly had an “attention tracking” setting, which alerted a call host if someone in the meeting wasn’t paying attention for more than 30 seconds. Zoom quickly backtracked and got rid of it.

But Microsoft kept its “productivity score” feature in its 365 suite, despite backlash from tech experts. This controversial feature rates individuals on different criteria, like network connectivity and email use.

According to digital researcher and privacy advocate Juan Carloz, from the University of Melbourne, this spying trend isn’t going away. Despite the controversy surrounding this invasive tech.

“There’s no real sign of this trend slowing down,” Carloz said. “No sign of legislative change in any jurisdiction I can name, and no sign of pushback from employees, even when they’re aware of it happening.”

It’s An Invasion Of Privacy, Right?

Sneek co-founder Del Currie says that his software is designed to replicate the office—and he fully admits it’s a total invasion of privacy.

“We know lots of people will find it an invasion of privacy, we 100% get that, and it’s not the solution for those folks,” Currie says. “But there’s also lots of teams out there who are good friends and want to stay connected when they’re working together.”

But Carloz argues that the tattleware boom is giving way too much power to the employer. He says that before the pandemic, the line between work and play was much clearer because “surveillance… stopped at the door.” Now, with tattleware, an employer can spy on an employee even when they’re not at work.

If an employee uses a spy-enabled work computer outside of business hours, their employer can still easily watch them. And, the employer would also have access to the employee’s personal data, like internet banking passwords and Facebook messages.

Carloz says that there are “essentially no legal protections afforded to employees in most western nations” if their boss snoops around their personal info in the off hours.

“But since, rightly or wrongly, [surveillance software] is being framed as a trade-off for remote work, many are all too content to let it slide,” Carloz says.


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