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The Creepy, Intrusive Ways You're Being Spied on at Work

How employers invade workers' privacy.

The following is an excerpt from SuperVision: An Introduction to the Surveillance Society (University of Chicago Press, 2012), by John Gilliom and Torin Monahan. Click here to buy a copy of the book. 

It was the moment Anna had been dreading. Ever since a coworker logged in to Anna’s computer and sent the boss an e-mail saying, “I’m now in the office,” she’d known it might come back to bite her. And it did. Here she was, standing in front of him, tears welling, trying to explain that she didn’t tell her coworker to lie about what time she arrived. The boss didn’t care, and he certainly didn’t believe her. After all, his computer system had discovered the “fact” of the erroneous e-mail, and he was pleased with himself for unearthing a contradiction in Anna’s record.

Because she typically got to the office at 6:00 a.m., well before any of the managers, Anna was supposed to send the boss an e-mail, and its time stamp would serve as a clock-in time. Her coworker thought she was doing her a favor by clocking her in when she was late for work. But the boss was suspicious—and maybe had way too much time on is hands. So he logged in to the electronic system for the building’s parking garage, pulled up the time she swiped her parking card, and compared that with the time posted on the e-mail. Discrepancy discovered! The e-mail was sent forty-five minutes before Anna’s car entered the garage.

With disbelief and anger mounting inside her, she listened to the gloating manager inform her that she was formally on probation and had better start looking for another job. It didn’t matter that she routinely worked overtime without extra pay. It didn’t matter that she never took the ten-minute breaks allowed by law. It didn’t matter that she never tried to deceive anyone about what time she arrived. The electronic systems of the office and building had been transformed into surveillance systems, and the boss was eager to use them to punish her.

This story is not made up. It happened to one of our friends a few years back. And it’s also not exceptional. Workplace surveillance is the norm for just about all jobs. Sometimes surveillance technologies are direct programs of observation clearly designed to monitor and discipline employees, like drug testing or keystroke tracking. Other times, as in Anna’s story, the technologies are designed for different purposes (sending e-mail or entering a parking garage), but they lend themselves to surveillance. This second set of uses is what we’ve referred to in previous chapters as function creep, because the systems creep beyond their original purposes. Whatever you want to call it, the workplace is crawling with surveillance, and a lot of times people don’t even realize it.

Taylorism: The Science of Working Faster

Workplaces have always been places of surveillance. In some accounts of early capitalism, one of the main reasons decentralized production systems were first implemented in shops and then in factories was so bosses could keep a closer eye on their workers. Whether people work in shops or offices, factories or fields, techniques of monitoring and control have been interwoven with labor processes for a long time. But workplace monitoring encountered a fundamental shift in the early twentieth century when a new idea was born: use “scientific” techniques to manage workers in factories to achieve optimal efficiency.

Frederick Winslow Taylor, one of the engineers at the heart of this new enterprise, used a stopwatch to time workers and analyzed their movements in an effort to discover the quickest and most efficient ways to perform repetitive tasks. One of the problems he sought to eliminate was “soldiering,” where workers would deliberately slow down to make labor less taxing and more tolerable. Taylor’s method consisted of breaking down tasks into their components, assigning workers to the tasks they performed best, and disciplining those who did not consistently operate as quickly as possible. This general technique was called scientific management; today it’s often referred to as Taylorism.

Taylor was not simply looking to increase productivity and punish workers. He was advocating for the formation of a new managerial class that he thought could bring about social and economic prosperity by applying scientific principles to the workplace. In 1911 he wrote,