Machine minders.

Employers have always wanted a productive and committed labor force, especially if it didn’t involve paying higher wages. Modern technology is supposed to improve productivity in ways that are well understood. However, technology also allows employers to measure productivity in other ways.[1] Software has been developed to track, measure, and analyze all sorts of employee actions. Today, 66 percent of American companies track employees’ internet use; 45 use key-stroke logging to track productivity; and 43 percent track e-mail. Employer-provided cell phones allow tracking through their GPS chips. In addition, computer systems connected to cash registers can track speed of customer purchase processing. UPS has fitted its trucks with a host of sensors that accomplish the same thing in measuring the delivery drivers. The information measures how hard an employee is working and, thus, their marginal value to the employer.

Beyond that, new software allows companies to engage in “sentiment-analysis” on the part of workers.[2] Companies have been using annual surveys and internal blogs to gain insight into the expressed beliefs of workers. New software purports to be able to measure the emotional content as well. (One study revealed that, in spite of the positive terms used to describe a diversity-enhancement initiative, workers felt threatened and fearful for their own jobs.) Other programs assess the salience of issues in the minds of workers.

People who value a degree of privacy might also be alarmed by the recent development of an employee badge that contains a microphone, location sensor, and accelerometer. For the moment, the company that produced the badge claims not to record conversations, but only to use the data to discover valuable patterns among workers.

All this undoubtedly spurs productivity. For example, after four years using the sensor system, UPS delivered 1.4 million packages using 1,000 fewer drivers. Using another technology, Bank of America call centers found that tightly knit groups of workers were less likely to quit and more productive on the job. The bank introduced common coffee-break times. Turnover fell by 70 percent and productivity increased by 10 percent.

It also violates a certain un-spoken assumptions about work held by many employees. Partly this has to do with how much work one should do for how much pay. “People get intimidated and they work faster,” complained one UPS driver. This isn’t really different from the “speed-up” on an assembly-line in the old days. Similarly, work-life and non-work-life are increasingly interpenetrated. Sometimes people have to take care of personal business while at work, just as they sometimes have to bring work home. They expect the employer to understand this reality. When employers complain about time use, employees resent it.

Partly this has to do with revealing employer attitudes about employees. “Right at the heart of all of this [monitoring] is trust,” confessed one management consultant. Modern human resources management talk about creating a sense of community or teamwork in the work-place is revealed to be so much drivel. Hence, Twitter has explicitly fore-sworn analyzing the e-mail of workers and focused on internal blogs (where workers can have no expectation of privacy). Then, will the information be used to cull employees who have what is seen as a bad attitude?

All this is compounded by the fact that good supervisory help is just as hard to get as is other types of employees. One supervisor told an employee that the GPS chip in her company issued cell phone allowed him to track her location 24/7. This could sound like being stalked.

[1] “The rise of workplace spying,” The Week, 10 July 2015, p. 11.

[2] Rachel King, “Companies Want to Know: How Do workers Feel?” WSJ, 14 October 2015.


Eye in the Sky.

Some time ago the courts decided that no one has a right to privacy when they are on the streets or in public places. Initially, this applied, in part, to the many surveillance cameras installed by banks and stores and apartment buildings. Then the development of digital cameras made surveillance video available to watchers in real time and it made it simple to transfer the images between widely separated computers. Then computer geeks developed face-recognition software and programs that detected “anomalous behavior.” All of these were great crime-fighting tools, at least according to the police who sing the non-specific praises of the cameras as deterrents and crime-solving aids.

With this doorway open, since 9-11 the Department of Homeland Security has been making grants to cities to fund the installation of security cameras targeting public places. These cameras supplement the already existing security cameras installed by banks, stores, and office buildings. Madison, Wisconsin—a bastion of Mid-Western liberalism–is putting in 32 cameras; Chicago and Baltimore—hotbeds of urban crime which actually don’t give a rip about Islamic terrorism—are installing thousands of cameras and are linking them to the existing systems of private cameras. The most elaborate system is that of the Lower Manhattan Security Initiative: by 2010, 3,000 cameras will be in place throughout Wall Street and the World Trade Center area. In addition, the system includes license plate readers connected to computers that cross reference the numbers of suspect vehicles and which share images with the Department of Homeland Security and the EffaBeeEye.

Now there is a new layer of observation: police, government, and private drones. The police are hot to use drones. In the 1980s the Supreme Court held that the police don’t need a warrant to observe private property from public airspace. [NB: What is “public airspace”? So far as I can tell, anything at a height of 500 feet or above is clearly public airspace; anything 83 feet or below is private airspace; and what is in-between is a little murky. Are you allowed to shoot drones under 83 feet like skeet?] Drones can be fitted with high-resolution cameras, infra-red sensors, license plate-readers, and directional microphones. They are quieter and smaller than helicopters, reducing the chance that people will know that they are being observed without a warrant. If you keep your shades pulled down, can they “assume” you’re running a grow house?

Are there problems with this program? In the eyes of individual rights advocates on the left and right, the answer is definitely yes. While government agencies will watch millions of people in public places in hopes of catching a few terrorists before an attack, it is more likely that they only will be able to figure out what happened after the attack. Will people just become habituated to being watched in public places? In a generation, will they accept the possibility of being watched in semi-public places? What happens when surveillance images leak from the government agency to the public sphere? See: The clip is fun to watch, except that it is a public traffic camera with the film leaked to provide private entertainment. What if a mini-drone lands on your bathroom window sill one morning and catches you in the shower? Some Peeping Tom at home or cops finding a fun use for the technology paid for by the DEA or property seizures from teen-age druggies driving their Dad’s BMW? In the eyes of most Americans, however, more surveillance cameras are just fine. (“The drone over your backyard,” The Week, 15 June 2012, p. 11.)