When technology makes it possible to monitor employees working remotely

Is my boss secretly watching me when I’m telecommuting? Technologies allow superiors to spy on their employees, a practice that is developing in the United States, but is very much regulated by law in France, where unions are on the alert.

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There’s no shortage of ways to tell if Teams is at work, from the “connected” light on work email to spyware.

When the latter are installed on the computers of the employees, nothing can escape them thanks to techniques such as the recording of keystrokes or even screenshots sent to the superior every five minutes.

Lockdowns have boosted the activity of companies specializing in this field worldwide. One of them, the American Hubstaff, claims on its website nearly 600,000 active customers worldwide. In France, however, this software is illegal because it does not comply with data protection regulations.

In this field, “the employer has the obligation to inform the employees” at the time of their installation, recalls Xavier Delporte, director of research at the National Commission for IT and Liberties (CNIL), responsible in France for ensuring the Protection of personal data. And “it’s all about proportionality” in their use.

Among these devices, for example, “the filtering of access to certain websites, for security reasons, should not deviate towards a systematic verification of the sites frequented by the employee”, recalls Mr. Delporte.

The CNIL indicates that “complaints about remote computer monitoring tools are rare”. In 2021, “less than ten” complaints on this subject were filed by employees with the French personal data policeman.

Most of the complaints recorded (“more than 80%) relate to “classic video surveillance” in the workplace, and not malicious use of spyware or a webcam turned on in secret, says Xavier Delporte. And among the remaining 20%, part concerns the geolocation of company vehicles.

Intrusive

The unions nevertheless have in their sights the secrecy of spyware, designed to be undetectable by employees. “These means are so intrusive and discreet that some will never know that they are being watched”, points out Sophie Binet, general secretary of a union of executives.

It also evokes more traditional surveillance methods, such as untimely calls from superiors or reproaches to employees when they do not appear to be “connected” during working hours.

For Bertrand Mahé, another national union representative, the “temptation” to spy on his teams reflects above all a failing management. “There are certainly abuses on the side of employees, but they are just as rare as in management,” he says.

The trade unionist relativizes the extent of the “culture of surveillance”, more common in his eyes in small companies given the small size of the workforce and the lack of knowledge of the law.

Be that as it may, all the methods making it possible to certify that the employee is concentrated on his task are misleading, according to Bertrand Mahé, who underlines that “the link between hours of presence and efficiency is far from being proven”.

“The control of employees is counter-productive, and above all risks passing on the stress of the manager to his teams”, he assures us. For him, it is a practice that goes against the “increased productivity” of employees as put forward by the developers of spyware.

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