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
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.