You'll Be Shocked at What 'Surveillance Valley' Knows About You
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Even more alarming, large employers are turning to for-profit intelligence to mine and monitor the lifestyles and habits of their workers outside the workplace. Earlier this year, the Wall Street Journal described how employers have partnered with health insurance companies to monitor workers for “health-adverse” behavior that could lead to higher medical expenses down the line:
Your company already knows whether you have been taking your meds, getting your teeth cleaned and going for regular medical checkups. Now some employers or their insurance companies are tracking what staffers eat, where they shop and how much weight they are putting on — and taking action to keep them in line.
But companies also have started scrutinizing employees’ other behavior more discreetly. Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina recently began buying spending data on more than 3 million people in its employer group plans. If someone, say, purchases plus-size clothing, the health plan could flag him for potential obesity — and then call or send mailings offering weight-loss solutions.
…”Everybody is using these databases to sell you stuff,” says Daryl Wansink, director of health economics for the Blue Cross unit. “We happen to be trying to sell you something that can get you healthier.”
“As an employer, I want you on that medication that you need to be on,” says Julie Stone, a HR expert at Towers Watson told the Wall Street Journal.
Companies might try to frame it as a health issue. I mean, what kind of asshole could be against employers caring about the wellbeing of their workers? But their ultimate concern has nothing to do with the employee health. It’s all about the brutal bottom line: keeping costs down.
An employer monitoring and controlling your activity outside of work? You don’t have to be union agitator to see the problems with this kind of mindset and where it could lead. Because there are lots of things that some employers might want to know about your personal life, and not only to “keep costs down.” It could be anything: to weed out people based on undesirable habits or discriminate against workers based on sexual orientation, regulation and political beliefs.
It’s not difficult to imagine that a large corporation facing a labor unrest or a unionization drive would be interested in proactively flagging potential troublemakers by pinpointing employees that might be sympathetic to the cause. But the technology and data is already here for wide and easy application: did a worker watch certain political documentaries, donate to environmental non-profits, join an animal rights Facebook group, tweet out support for Occupy Wall Street, subscribe to the Nation or Jacobin, buy Naomi Klein’s “Shock Doctrine”? Or maybe the worker simply rented one of Michael Moore’s films? Run your payroll through one of the massive consumer intel databases and look if there is any matchup. Bound to be plenty of unpleasant surprises for HR!
This has happened in the past, although in a cruder and more limited way. In the 1950s, for instance, some lefty intellectuals had their lefty newspapers and mags delivered to P.O. boxes instead of their home address, worrying that otherwise they’d get tagged as Commie sympathizers. That might have worked in the past. But with the power of private intel companies, today there’s nowhere to hide.
FTC Commissioner Julie Brill has repeatedly voiced concern that unregulated data being amassed by for-profit intel companies would be used to discriminate and deny employment, and to determine consumer access to everything from credit to insurance to housing. “As Big Data algorithms become more accurate and powerful, consumers need to know a lot more about the ways in which their data is used,” she told the Wall Street Journal.