Staff mount­ing fight­back over home of­fice surveil­lance

Work­ers are learn­ing to counter the tools used by em­ploy­ers to mon­i­tor them while they work re­motely, writes Han­nah Boland

The Daily Telegraph - Business - - Business -

When Steve Wil­liams cre­ated a piece of soft­ware to au­to­mat­i­cally move a mouse around a screen 10 years ago, there was noth­ing un­der­hand about his mo­tives. At the time, he was work­ing at a large in­vest­ment bank where dif­fer­ent mem­bers of staff needed to use a sin­gle ma­chine without log­ging out each time.

“Move Mouse just started as a re­ally sim­ple script to keep the ma­chine alive,” he says.

Ever since, the soft­ware has de­vel­oped a small but loyal fan-base of peo­ple who rely on it and other sim­i­lar tools to keep their sys­tems logged in dur­ing lengthy work pro­cesses.

Wil­liams had never pre­dicted what would come next – or how the spread of a deadly virus might im­pact de­mand.

This year, since the first few weeks of lock­down, Wil­liams says the soft­ware has ex­pe­ri­enced a “mas­sive spike” in down­loads. In the end, he says: “There were some­thing like 40,000 peo­ple a day us­ing Move Mouse”.

What ex­plains the huge surge? Wil­liams claims one ob­vi­ous rea­son is that peo­ple are work­ing from home – and want to ap­pear to be on­line even when they are not.

It’s no se­cret that Covid-19 has trans­formed the world of work in un­ex­pected ways. One of th­ese is an in­ten­si­fy­ing arms race be­tween em­ploy­ers and their em­ploy­ees over surveil­lance tools used to mon­i­tor them while they work from home.

Mil­lions of peo­ple across the world have tran­si­tioned to “re­mote work­ing” since the start of the Covid-19 pan­demic. To cope with the shift, many em­ploy­ers have em­braced mon­i­tor­ing soft­ware to keep tabs on their staff.

Yet de­spite the rapid adop­tion of soft­ware de­signed to spy on staff, few peo­ple are com­fort­able with this change. More than 70pc of staff said the trend was likely to erode trust be­tween work­ers and their em­ploy­ers.

Now em­ploy­ees are fight­ing back against cor­po­rate surveil­lance soft­ware with tools de­signed to trick it.

One former Bar­clays em­ployee has ex­pe­ri­enced this first hand. When he dis­cov­ered a heat and mo­tion sen­sor un­der his desk in 2016, he went straight to his line man­ager for an ex­pla­na­tion. “He sheep­ishly told me that they wanted to more ef­fi­ciently hot desk, and to do that they needed to know who was at their desks. This couldn’t have been true as half the desks in the build­ing were empty.”

Bar­clays later said there was a “phased roll-out” of such de­vices, although The Tele­graph re­vealed last week­end that it was be­ing in­ves­ti­gated by the UK data watch­dog over al­le­ga­tions it was spy­ing on staff ear­lier this year, with “Sapi­ence” kit that tracked how em­ploy­ees spent their time at work.

While com­pa­nies are start­ing to de­ploy more and more tech­nol­ogy to track their staff, em­ploy­ees are turn­ing to tools them­selves for a way around it.

“I need time to go to the gym or else I’d go crazy,” one user ex­plained on Red­dit. “I need a way to ap­pear as if I’m on­line con­stantly when I am not.”

To do this, some staff have turned to “mouse mov­ing” soft­ware, like Mouse Move, to keep their “sta­tus” as on­line across chat plat­forms such as Slack. Oth­ers have in­stead favoured less risky steps, such as plac­ing their

‘Many com­pa­nies are turn­ing to firms such as Time Doc­tor, which screen­shot work­ers’ screens’

‘I need time to go to the gym or else I’d go crazy. I need a way to ap­pear as if I’m on­line when I am not’

laser mouse on an ana­logue watch, which keeps it ac­tive, or just play­ing lengthy videos on their lap­top.

“When I’m home and need a break, I just YouTube pure black screen. Some are as long as 36 hours,” says one Red­dit user.

There are down­sides to us­ing th­ese “mouse mov­ing” work­arounds. Wil­liams cau­tions that while you could “ab­so­lutely fool some­one that you’re at the desk and work­ing, I think you’d be a bit naive to do that”.

It is not just soft­ware track­ing mouse move­ments that em­ploy­ees are in­creas­ingly com­ing up against. Many com­pa­nies are turn­ing to firms such as Time Doc­tor, which screen­shot work­ers’ screens and of­fer “op­tional we­b­cam fea­tures” to take pic­tures of staff ev­ery 10 min­utes.

Ex­perts have warned th­ese are much harder to by­pass, although Kick­i­dler, which of­fers its own pro­duc­tiv­ity track­ing soft­ware, has said some sys­tems can be tricked by tech-savvy staff, by do­ing things such as open­ing up mul­ti­ple win­dows or con­nect­ing re­motely to a sep­a­rate com­puter.

For the most pri­vacy fo­cused, though, there is only one way to stop such surveil­lance tech­nol­ogy. Clear bound­aries must be set early on. Staff must make sure they have sep­a­rate work and per­sonal de­vices, and two in­ter­net con­nec­tions “for ab­so­lute pri­vacy,” one Red­dit user ad­vises.

“Make sure your work com­puter stays on your work in­ter­net con­nec­tion and your per­sonal com­puter on your per­sonal in­ter­net provider.” This stops com­pa­nies be­ing able to gain ac­cess to what peo­ple are look­ing at on their non-work de­vices.

While many recog­nise Covid-19 has brought a real change in the staffem­ployer re­la­tion­ship, there is still much un­ease over what the fu­ture could hold for re­mote work­ing. Com­pa­nies may be in­creas­ingly turn­ing to tech to keep an eye on staff – but their em­ploy­ees are mov­ing just as quickly to counter it.

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