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Keystroke tracking, screenshots, and facial recognition: The boss may be watching long after the pandemic ends

What workers should know about corporate surveillance software as companies consider permanent remote work policies

Businesses are turning to software that can track remote employees' productivity. But the tools can also record their keystrokes, screens and even audio. (Video: Jonathan Baran/The Washington Post)
9 min

When Kerrie Krutchik, an attorney for 34 years, was hired this spring for one of the legal field’s fastest-growing jobs, she expected to review case files at a pandemic-safe distance from the comfort of her Ohio home.

Then she received a laptop in the mail with her instructions: To get paid, she’d have to comply with a company-mandated facial recognition system for every minute of her contract. If she looked away for too many seconds or shifted in her chair, she’d have to scan her face back in from three separate angles, a process she ended up doing several times a day.

For Krutchik, the laptop’s unblinking little camera light quickly became a nightmare — and a reminder of what her new workday might look like even after the pandemic fades. After two weeks, she ended her contract and pledged never to consent to that kind of monitoring again.

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“It’s just this constant, unnecessary, nerve-racking stress: You’re trying to concentrate and in the back of your mind you know you’re on camera the entire time,” she said. “While you’re reviewing a document, you don’t know who is reviewing you.”

The spread of the delta variant has kept many of America’s office employees working from home and fueled a rise in surveillance technologies by employers — in finance, law, technology and other industries — eager to keep tabs on their remote workforce. The facial recognition monitoring Krutchik experienced offers one of the stranger examples of America’s massive work-from-home experiment, because it relies on a glitchy and, to some, quite creepy camera system built to ensure workers don’t lose focus or break the rules.

The adoption of the technology coincides with an increase in companies’ use of more traditional monitoring software, which can track an employee’s computer keystrokes, take screenshots and in some cases record audio or video while they are working from home. Sometimes, this is done without their knowledge, which means companies have the potential to gain access to employees’ private details like banking or health information.

Workers have little power to control how and when they’re being monitored, especially if they are using work-issued devices. Experts advise workers to assume they are being monitored if they’re in the office or using company equipment and recommend that they read the fine print in contracts.

Market research firm Gartner says companies used more surveillance tools during the coronavirus pandemic to keep tabs on employees and monitor work productivity. The number of large employers using tools to track their workers doubled since the beginning of the pandemic to 60 percent. That number is expected to rise to 70 percent within the next three years, said Brian Kropp, chief of human resources research at Gartner.

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And the software is expected to become even more sophisticated, telling employers how to turn the data they collect into actionable measures to drive the business. Soon it might do things like tell managers how employees work together via Zoom, understand who the main contributors are and how specific patterns may lead to specific results.

“That’s going to be the evolution of the monitoring,” Kropp said.

Companies say the tracking offers a critical way to ensure their employees are staying productive and telling the truth about how much they work when their bosses are many miles away. Some employers have voiced concerns that, without the monitoring, their workers might cut corners or pursue multiple jobs simultaneously, depriving them of the focus and labor they need to stay competitive in the remote-work era.

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Brad Edward, CEO of Spekless Cleaning in Arlington, Va., said he has been using monitoring software from Hubstaff at his company for about five years. The reason? He needs a reliable time-tracking system for his local and remote office workers who help with operations.

But Spekless is not interested in checking on exactly what employees are doing throughout the day because, Edward said, privacy is an important part of the employer-employee relationship.

“Ultimately, as an employer, your goal is to foster a culture of collaboration and mutual trust,” he said. “These tools can either work with you or against you, depending on how you use them.”

Still, many workers say they are increasingly worried about the level of surveillance.

David, who spoke on the condition that his last name not be used, was working as a customer service agent for a financial tech company in Utah when the pandemic started, and he was sent to work from home. Last fall, after his company switched the software it asked employees to use on their work-issued computers, he was randomly clicking around the system trying to figure out how to get where he needed to be. Suddenly, his boss started speaking to him through his headset, instructing him on how to log in. David said he couldn’t recall exactly what software the company used, but he was surprised to find that his boss could see what he was doing, a seemingly new capability at the company.

“I was upstairs with my boys, and I get a text from my husband (David) that said, ‘If you come down here, don’t say anything and let me know because we’re being listened to,’” said David’s wife, Rebekah.

When David brought the issue up at a company meeting, he found out the firm could listen to his audio at any time, not just during calls that are often monitored for quality purposes. But now David was at home with his wife and children. The situation had changed, but the monitoring had not adapted to the privacy he expected while working from home.

“[I felt] paralyzed,” David said. “Like I couldn’t say anything without potential repercussions.”

Within a month of the discovery, David quit his job.

Ashley, who spoke on the condition of being identified only by her first name to avoid employment repercussions, said the banking start-up she was working for in New York implemented surveillance software about 10 days after the company sent employees to work from home last year. The company asked them to download Hubstaff, a software program that tracks productivity in part by recording keystrokes and taking screenshots, on their personal computers. The request was out of the question for Ashley, who was furloughed for refusing to download the software before getting a new job altogether.

“I have so much information on my computer: my banking information, my passwords, my email that has stuff from my doctors,” she said. “I just wouldn’t want my employers to have access to this.”

While she tried to take up the issue with human resources, she saw a change in how her colleagues worked. The company expected employees to have an 85 percent or higher “activity level,” which is calculated based on keystrokes and mouse movement. Anyone who didn’t meet expectations was docked pay. To avoid that, Ashley said her co-workers began sending each other more messages to meet their keystrokes rather than lose time thinking through a complex problem.

“People just stopped caring [about the job],” she said.

The tension between employees and employers around the level of monitoring comes down to trust and transparency, experts say. If employees aren’t given the full details of when and how they’re monitored and if they don’t feel trusted at work, they’re more likely to refuse monitoring of any kind regardless of the purpose.

“Employers have to be upfront and honest about the extent of the monitoring,” said John Verdi, vice president of policy at data privacy-focused think tank Future of Privacy Forum, a think tank focused on data privacy and funded by Big Tech companies including Facebook and Google. “And employees have to be upfront and honest about what they view is their obligation in their jobs.”

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Attorneys required to use the new face-scanning software while working from home said they understood the need for security because reviewing sensitive documents is part of the job. But many felt the remote-work surveillance had gone too far. The facial recognition systems, they said, felt intrusive, dysfunctional or annoying, booting them out of their work software if they shifted in their seat, rested their eyes, adjusted their glasses, wore a headband or necklace, went to the bathroom or had a child walk through their room.

Even more problematically, some facial recognition systems have been shown in research to perform worse with people of color because the algorithms are less accurate at identifying people with darker skin tones. That leaves many attorneys fearful that they could be penalized because of the color of their skin. Three attorneys, all of whom are Black, said they had routinely struggled to be recognized by the face-scanning systems in a way that their lighter-skinned colleagues did not.

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Several couldn’t help but note the irony that their careers in consumer privacy and employment law had led them to a role they felt pushed the boundaries on both.

“The true currency an attorney has is trust … and the technology they’re using to monitor what attorneys are doing puts that trust into question,” said Gerald Edwards, a New York City attorney practicing since 1994. “Are you even trusting me at all, that you have to watch me and monitor me like a 4-year-old?”

Experts say monitoring often doesn’t accomplish management’s goals unless leaders set clear-cut, realistic objectives customized to each team and its needs. But the pandemic triggered panic among many companies that suddenly had to allow their employees to work from home for the first time.

“It seems like a lot of people confused monitoring with management,” said Alison Green, a work advice columnist who runs the Ask a Manager website and received numerous complaints about employee surveillance during the pandemic. “You don’t always need this level of micromanaging.”

Laszlo Bock, CEO and co-founder of human resource software service Humu and a former Google executive, said the pandemic created a sudden instinct in leaders to increase the level of control as workers went remote.

“The paradox is, every manager is also an employee, and they have a manager,” he said. “If you ask [managers] what they want from their manager, it’s to stay out of their way.”

Legally, employers usually have the upper hand when it comes to monitoring, said Marta Manus, an attorney at San Diego-based Marble Law Firm. Often, employees are unaware that the policies they sign upon their hiring include terms that cover work surveillance such as monitoring through laptop cameras or computer software. Manus said employees should be wary and ask for specifics about any monitoring policy as well as who will have access to that data. But if workers hope to sue their employers for invasion of privacy, they have the burden to prove damages.

“If it’s a company device, you have zero expectation of privacy,” she said. “If it’s a personal device, as long as there are clear policies in place in favor of monitoring for work purposes, the law is going to permit it.”

Employee-monitoring software provider Teramind says its number of customers has increased by three to four times during the pandemic. And many small and midsize employers who were on the fence about purchasing the software at the beginning of the pandemic are now making the purchase as they move to permanent remote work options.

Teramind has two versions of monitoring software, one in which employees know they’re being monitored and can switch on or off and one that employers control. Eli Sutton, Teramind’s vice president of operations, said the company advises its clients to tell their employees that they’re using the software as well as explain the productivity goals. The knowledge alone on average translates into a 30 percent spike in productivity versus secretly monitoring employees, Sutton said. That’s because employees know what specific goals they have to reach and that they’re being monitored for those goals, he said.

Hubstaff said it logged a record month in March 2020, and since the beginning of the pandemic, customers have increased by 40 percent. Currently, more than 70,000 companies and organizations use Hubstaff. But Hubstaff said most employers want their employees to understand how the software works and know what’s being tracked.

As for Krutchik, the 34-year attorney, the feeling of distrust stayed with her. Though she has committed to never taking a job that would require her to use facial recognition software again, she worries that her options could be limited as companies’ high expectations for employee monitoring become more mainstream.

“The company thinks it’s an added layer of protection of them, but for the employee it’s just an added layer of stress,” she said. “You’re on your guard all day, feeling like your privacy is invaded, and still, it’s like: They don’t trust you.”

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