The Creepy, Intrusive Ways You're Being Spied on at Work
Continued from previous page
Some of the things they say they look for are sexually explicit photos or videos, racist remarks, or evidence of illegal activity. But there’s also a gray area of subjective indicators they may use to weed out candidates: things like making inappropriate comments, holding marginal political views, or having a questionable lifestyle. The chief executive of Social Intelligence says, for instance, that a red flag was raised by a photo of someone next to some large marijuana plants in a greenhouse. While we can easily see that this is not evidence of “illegal activity,” it was suggestive enough to eliminate that person as a candidate. Another person belonged to a Facebook group supporting the exclusive use of the English language in the United States. While we may not agree with this position, it isn’t evidence that the person would treat non-English-speaking people differently—indeed, belonging to a “group” isn’t even proof that a person believes in that position. Discrimination against prospective employees can take many forms, however, and some are perfectly legal. Currently, for example, employers shouldn’t ask (or search for information) about your race, age, religion, marital status, or disabilities, but federal employment law doesn’t prohibit them from asking about your sexual orientation.
Finally, don’t think employers will stop watching your online activity once you’re hired. Social Intelligence also offers ongoing monitoring of all employee posts, photos, videos, and groups and serves up “near real-time notifications and alerts” to supervisors. So if someone tagged you in a questionable photo over the weekend, you might be fired for it on Monday morning. Think of it as Workplace Surveillance 2.0.
Now a high-priced man does just what he’s told to do, and no back talk. Do you understand that? —Frederick Winslow Taylor
It is a degradation of human beings, Damn You. —An American worker, commenting on urine-based drug testing
Despite Taylor’s hope, back talk has been a big part of the story of workplace surveillance. A lot of resistance these days occurs on the Internet on blogs, websites, and other “rant” forums, which is one reason companies are monitoring these media. In an era where corporations try desperately to control their public image, companies see online venting by workers as a real threat that may damage profitability and perhaps even put them out of business. And there are an overwhelming number of “workplace sucks” sites: WalmartSucks, RadioShackSucks, HomeDepotSucks, and thousands more. It’s not clear whether such sites have been effective at reducing workplace surveillance, and they may have increased it (as companies monitor the sites and try to shut them down), but they do offer a public venue for griping, outing unsavory corporate practices, or whistle-blowing. They also provide a medium for isolated workers to join together and collectively push for policy changes.
In a more traditional vein, labor unions have been at the forefront of political struggles over such things as employee drug-testing programs, new means of tracking employees’ locations, call and keystroke monitoring, and test-based assessments of teacher performance. In our discussions of ID cards and schools, we looked at the quiet, everyday resistance to surveillance that individuals practice in their lives. But here we’re going to note that the politics of surveillance also include some prominent public battles that end up in courts and legislatures.
It’s no surprise that workers fight back against surveillance—so do corporations when they oppose regulatory inspection and government agencies when they fight “sunshine” laws. Surveillance is an expression of power that reduces autonomy and expands the visibility of our actions—people and organizations typically have a strong interest in opposing intensified scrutiny. In much of the surveillance covered in this book, the people targeted are not well positioned to fight back. Consumers, for example, are not typically shopping as an organized group, so they lack the information and collective clout to do much about anything. Students, criminal suspects, drivers, job applicants, and others typically find themselves in the same lonely and powerless boat.
But unionized workers have been a particularly strong source of opposition to increasing surveillance. By pressuring legislators, filing lawsuits, and working with regulatory agencies, unions have been able to at least publicize and modify, if not fully prevent, increases in the surveillance of their workers. Working with more specialized groups—like the American Civil Liberties Union, the Electronic Privacy Information Center, and Privacy International—unions try to play the role that privacy regulators and agencies tend to neglect, especially in the United States. With US labor unions declining in membership and political influence, one of the most effective forms of political opposition to surveillance may be disappearing. It remains to be seen whether online tools and social media can pick up the slack and slow—or roll back—the seemingly inexorable push of workplace surveillance.