Browsing Facebook and watching Netflix during work…working from home is so free? Be careful, your laptop may be used to spy on you.
On the first day of reporting to a tech company, you will sign a pile of documents and happily receive the laptop provided by the company. Generally, personal laptops are not accepted, and the company provides them. However, you may not know that by accepting this laptop, you have also accepted the hottest “spyware” currently available. Even if the laptop is an old model purchased years ago, as long as it has been connected to the company’s network in the past two years, it may have been secretly injected with spyware. In addition, you may not know that among the pile of documents you signed on the day you joined the company, there is also authorization for the company to monitor you.
Secret monitoring by companies is not news, but with the era of remote work, spyware has also become more optimized and popular. The era of remote work is also the era of remote monitoring, and there is no free freedom in the world. If all the monitoring items are exposed to the sun, you will definitely try to recall what kind of unspeakable things you have done on this laptop, and of course, you will never trust any company again.
Be careful when chatting with colleagues and badmouthing your boss privately, as you may both end up in trouble. I learned firsthand about being monitored at work over 20 years ago, when desktop computers were still in use. The door to the office of a manager across from me was always closed, probably to avoid being disturbed. One day, I saw the HR department and security guards walk in and he was never seen again. Later, I found out that he was caught browsing pornographic websites during work hours. This was already common knowledge in the 90s, and only the most foolish people thought that closing the door meant that no one knew what they were doing. I also heard of people being fired for trading stocks during work hours. Even back then, there were “secret police” within companies who monitored every website you visited. The monitoring was very primitive at the time, only recording which IP was connected to which IP, and the recording software was just a tool that came with the network switch, not intended for monitoring. Over 20 years have passed, and modern monitoring software is now deeply embedded in laptops, following you home and into your bedroom, monitoring everything, almost to the point of invading your privacy.
I have known for a long time that every keystroke on the company network, every email, and every word spoken on Slack is known to the company, including private conversations. Even content marked as “private” on these online platforms is still company property, and there is no privacy for the “secret police”. Last year, three high-ranking executives at Netflix were naive enough to believe in the definition of privacy and were fired for criticizing their boss on Slack. Silicon Valley tech companies trust their employees to the point where they can claim expenses without receipts and take unlimited vacation time, but they do not trust their words and actions. So, don’t forget that the president can criticize, but the boss cannot; and don’t forget that companies do not talk about human rights or personal privacy, and your every move is being monitored… whether it’s a good or bad company.
All information generated by using the network and equipment provided by the company, including employee behavior records, belongs to the company and there is no issue of personal privacy. If you put something private in there, it’s your own fault. The problem is that COVID has changed this definition, turning homes into offices and bringing monitors into our homes. Working hours have become blurred, so we are being monitored throughout the day.
The problem is, if I work 12 hours a day and spend a few hours using the same computer to handle personal matters or watch Taiwanese news on YouTube… no one knows how to account for this, and the company probably doesn’t care. But the point is, you should know that you are being monitored almost 24/7, and the data is under control. When needed, it will be used without hesitation, just like in the Netflix case.
Remote Work = “Remote Monitoring”
Since the outbreak of the pandemic, adapting to the situation has become the biggest challenge for management. If they fail to evolve and change their ways with the pandemic, the management may feel lost. As a result, monitoring software that helps with “micro-management” has become popular. The management must have a clear understanding of how many employees are taking advantage of the pandemic to take COVID leave and steal work time. Due to the pandemic, the term “time theft” has become popular. Many conservative companies view work hours and productivity as assets. If an employee does not meet the standard of working eight hours a day, it is considered time theft.
Of course, technology companies are not so strict. They care about productivity, and most employees are on a responsibility system. However, this does not mean that they will not pay attention to every detail. This is already a trend. What needs to be collected will be collected, and how to use it will be decided later. Big data is a double-edged sword. Internet platforms use it to collect every click of users, and it is easy to turn around and collect every expression of employees. In addition, from a cybersecurity perspective, employees with approved devices can access the core of the website from anywhere in the world. Even if the employer does not suspect the employee, they must be wary of hackers. Therefore, the position of monitoring is absolutely justifiable for the employer, and there is no need to explain or disclose it to the employee.
You should not doubt this. Regardless of how humane the company is, you should assume that you are being monitored throughout the process.
The market for monitoring software has grown significantly due to the pandemic. As of the mid-term of the pandemic, 78% of employers were using remote monitoring software, half of which were only used after the pandemic began. Some particularly popular monitoring software has even grown by 500%. After working from home for 27 months, you may not know that you have brought home the person who likes to secretly report on others. This type of software has a proprietary term called Bossware or Tattleware. So, yes, you and I may have a closely followed evaluation, which is regularly sent to senior executives for reference: who did what, said what, and spent how much time watching Netflix while receiving a salary… all of which are clear at a glance. Of course, this depends on the company’s culture and tolerance. Most companies may not take action, but only use it as a reference for long-term work from home productivity. However, do not underestimate these values: once layoffs begin, they may be the basis for retention or dismissal.
No wonder the company is so eager to have you back.
If you delve into these statistics, you’ll start to sympathize with the employer. The data is terrifying, which is why so many companies started monitoring their employees during the pandemic. It’s also why they’re resorting to all sorts of tactics, from coaxing and threatening to enticing employees back to the office. It’s no surprise that Tesla’s Musk issued a stern warning, demanding that employees return to the office immediately, working a full 40-hour week, or else.
Taking into account the statistics from Digital.com, we can see that there are indeed many problems with long-term remote work:
- 53% of people spend 3 hours or more each day on non-work-related tasks, while 27% spend 5 hours or more.
- 52% of people spend 1-4 hours each day browsing non-work-related content online.
- 75% of people use social media during work hours.
- 60% of people leave their workstations for extended periods of time.
- This one is the most shocking… 52% of employees have side jobs.
- 88% of employers engage in layoffs after installing monitoring software.
These are average statistics across industries, and many of them are based on working hours or workload, which may not apply to the tech industry. I work 10-12 hours a day, and I believe many engineers do the same. It’s reasonable to spend a couple of hours browsing the internet or leaving your workstation for a break… all of which can drive up the statistics. Additionally, I often use YouTube or other websites for learning, and every tech company knows this.
Regardless of the statistics, the message behind them is clear: employers can track your every move.
What Are You Being Monitored For?
Finally, let’s talk about what you should be most concerned about: what exactly can they monitor? Of course, every company uses different tools with varying degrees of impact. If we compile all the monitoring functions reported in the media, you might get goosebumps. (Compiled from The Washington Post, Fortune Magazine, The New York Times, Turtler, and other media sources)
Monitoring, detecting, and recording:
- Every keystroke on your keyboard
- The number of times you move your mouse
- Periodic screenshots of your screen
- Whether you are online, how long you have been idle, and how long you have been offline
- Every action you take on social media
- Which websites you have visited and how long you stayed on each one
- Which software you have run on your laptop and for how long
- Every email you have read and sent
- Every online meeting you have attended or hosted, including those outside the company
- Your level of engagement during online meetings (detecting whether you click on anything outside the meeting)
- Who is present at the meeting, including those outside the company
- All private messages
- Your exact current location
- Every password you type
- Listening to conversations and being able to activate recording
- Viewing your calendar and personal notes
- Viewing all files on your computer, including photos
- Being able to activate your camera
- Being able to remotely control your laptop
- Being able to activate facial recognition
Of course, many monitoring software programs encourage companies to inform employees that they are being monitored and to list the items being monitored. However, the law does not require employers to do so. I believe that almost every well-known technology company in Silicon Valley employs some degree of monitoring, but I have not heard of any company informing its employees. Many people are not even aware that they are being monitored. It is better to let you guess than to inform you clearly about such matters. Some things cannot be transparent and can never be revealed.
Today’s report function has evolved to the point where AI and machine learning can be used to evaluate each employee’s performance and even predict productivity. If combined with facial recognition, image recognition, and machine translation, we can continue to develop targeted value and scrutinize every action of individuals under a microscope. So don’t think that the data is too massive or diverse to track and analyze, as this is what Silicon Valley is best at. During prosperous times, we can turn a blind eye and focus on expanding our horizons, valuing harmony and productivity. However, during tough times, expanding our horizons may not be as important.
Data Doesn’t Determine Strategy, Management Does
If data is used as a general reference without being specific or targeted, I believe it is worth supporting. However, if it is used as a management tool, it can be the darkest side of the workplace. When the pandemic hit, people disappeared overnight, leaving only headshots on the screen that management couldn’t connect with. Remote monitoring can make assets that cannot be seen, touched, or heard tangible. Once data becomes targeted, we will quickly fall into the abyss of “micro-management,” where everyone pays attention to trivial matters, and the scope becomes smaller and smaller. Corporate culture will be hijacked by algorithms.
The worst thing about monitoring is that everything is digitized, and soon it becomes about quantity rather than quality. If only quantity is considered, those being monitored can easily create false numbers: typing more words on the keyboard, clicking the mouse more times, sitting in front of the computer for a few more hours, but still watching Netflix on the iPad or daydreaming. Monitoring software is very subtle but also superficial in its detection. Once there is no trust, everything will become perfunctory. Anyone who has served in the military understands the power of perfunctory. Pretending to be busy on the computer is very easy.
Unfortunately, the spirit of big data is to record everything in detail. Data doesn’t determine strategy, management does.
What’s worse is that under the monitoring system, if you are exhausted after a whole day of online meetings and find that you are facing such distrust, morale will quickly collapse. After remote work, the friendship between people is already as thin as paper. If the employer tells you that they are monitoring you all the time and to take care of yourself, no one will dare to take the high salary. This is also the reason they don’t tell you.
Furthermore, it is even more terrifying if you encounter an “evil secret police” who may have all your secrets…
As for employees themselves, as long as work is not based on hourly or quantitative measurements, let them monitor. Whether it’s watching Taiwanese news, going on YouTube, or going on Facebook… it’s okay to do it all like me. Let the content they monitor be colorful and diverse. Otherwise, everyone will be bored to death, and maybe they can learn some Chinese on the side. However, I learned to install a small shutter on my laptop camera a long time ago. One night, I suddenly found that the camera light was on. It shouldn’t be monitoring, but rather some bored person on the internet. But whoever wants to spy on me is their misfortune.
Since remote work has become the norm, remote monitoring will also become the norm. If you want to work from home, you have to give up privacy in exchange for a little freedom. So far, at least for me, everything is still worth it.