The Future of Work

These were the craziest workplace surveillance stories of 2017

New advances in technology are making it easier than ever for our employers to track our movements, whereabouts, and employability. Through information that we knowingly or unwittingly provide about ourselves, employers can make small and big decisions about our careers.

Is this creepy and invasive? Depends on who you ask. While these surveillance tools can make our jobs more convenient, they can come at a high cost to our privacy, creating Orwellian nightmares.

As we reflect on the future of work, here’s a list of last year’s wildest workplace surveillance stories that should make us worry about what’s to come.

Brace yourselves!

1) Employees willingly getting microchipped for convenience

Would you get microchipped so that you could eat chips faster from a vending machine? A majority of employees at Three Square Market, a Wisconsin tech company, agreed to do this in July, a reported first for the United States.

With a microchip implanted in their hands, these cyborgs can now enter the building, log onto their computers, and get chips from the vending machine with the wave of a hand. While this makes their jobs more convenient, it makes it much easier for their employers to track them. Although the CEO of Three Square Market says that the data is encrypted and secure, that’s a lot of health and productivity information you’re entrusting to your employer.

2) Employers using big data to predict which employees will get sick

Some companies including retailer Wal-Mart are using outside firms to look up how you shop, what you eat, and what prescription drugs you buy to algorithmically predict which employees are most likely to get a health condition, according to a February investigation by the Wall Street Journal.

Here’s an example of how one wellness firm can collect information from your insurer and other companies to figure out you’re pregnant before you’re ready to know you’re pregnant: “To determine which employees might soon get pregnant, Castlight recently launched a new product that scans insurance claims to find women who have stopped filling birth-control prescriptions, as well as women who have made fertility-related searches on Castlight’s health app,” the Journal reported.

Yes, you can opt out of the prenatal care you might start receiving if the algorithm guesses incorrectly, but you cannot opt out of the Big Brother feeling that someone is watching you.

(Clarification 1/11/18: Castlight SVP Kristin Anne Torres Mowat clarifies that the data Castlight provides is anonymized of identifying characteristics and aggregated, so that an employer will not see which individuals might be pregnant.)

3) Companies reportedly preventing older job seekers from seeing job listings

Companies may be making decisions about your employability before you know a job exists.

A recent investigation by ProPublica and The New York Times found that dozens of the nation’s top employers —including Amazon, Verizon, Goldman Sachs, UPS, and Facebook — are using Facebook, Google, and LinkedIn to create recruitment ads that target only younger job seekers. The report outlines how older job seekers would not see job listings even if they wanted to apply to them through this age-based ad targeting.

Is the targeting of one group the illegal exclusion of another? The law is unclear on when targeting younger job seekers becomes age discrimination. While some companies backed down after being alerted to the targeted ads, others defended the practice. Facebook said its age-based ad targeting is “an accepted industry practice.”

4) A productivity tool that takes pictures of employees every 10 minutes to make sure they are working

How can employers tell if their remote workers are slacking off or not? Talent management company Crossover has built a productivity tool, WorkSmart, that is seen as one solution. Through frequent screenshots of workstations and numbers on workers’ app use and keystrokes, WorkSmart can give employers a “focus score” and an “intensity score” to judge their employees.

While this may make some of us extremely self-conscious, Crossover thinks you’ll get over it and see it as “betterment.”

“The response is ‘OK, I’m being monitored, but if the company is paying for my time how does it matter if it’s recording what I’m doing? It’s only for my betterment,’ ” Crossover’s Sanjeev Patni told the Guardian about how employees adjust to being monitored.

5) More of us are using email to track each other at work

How many of your coworkers and competitors are tracking your emails? The answer is more and more each day. A 2017 Wired investigation into email trackers found that more of us are using trackers to know exactly when, where, and how often we are reading each other’s emails.

According to email intelligence company OMC, one in five “conversational” emails are now being tracked.

“We have been in touch with users that were tracked by their spouses, business partners, competitors,” Florian Seroussi, the founder of OMC told Wired. “It’s the wild, wild west out there.”

What are the ethics of only one party knowing they are being tracked by email? The dangers within laypersons and employees using trackers have yet to be fully explored.

The bottom line

This list is only a jump-off point for all the tomorrows that are happening and have not yet happened in the workplace. As technology continues to advances, the one prediction that I’m certain of is that we will continue to be amazed at how far businesses will go to track job seekers and employees.

Monica Torres is a reporter for Ladders. She is based in New York City and can be reached at mtorres@theladders.com.