Big Tech & the Growing Trend of Employer Home Surveillance

Big Tech & the Growing Trend of Employer Home Surveillance

Big Tech call centers are now using A.I. powered video surveillance to monitor employees at home including their children…

August 12, 2021 — A Colombia-based call center is requiring workers who provide outsourced customer service to some of the nation’s largest tech companies to sign a contract that lets their employer install cameras in their homes to monitor “work performance.” Employees were being pressured into signing the contract that would bar them from discussing the contract and its terms with the media.

NBC News did actual journalism1 and investigated:

Six workers based in Colombia for Teleperformance, one of the world’s largest call center companies, which counts Apple, Amazon and Uber among its clients, said that they are concerned about the new contract, first issued in March. The contract allows monitoring by AI-powered cameras in workers’ homes, voice analytics and storage of data collected from the worker’s family members, including minors. Teleperformance employs more than 380,000 workers globally, including 39,000 workers in Colombia.

“The contract allows constant monitoring of what we are doing, but also our family,” said a Bogota-based worker on the Apple account who was not authorized to speak to the news media. “I think it’s really bad. We don’t work in an office. I work in my bedroom. I don’t want to have a camera in my bedroom.”

The worker said that she signed the contract, a copy of which NBC News has reviewed, because she feared losing her job. She said that she was told by her supervisor that she would be moved off the Apple account if she refused to sign the document. She said the additional surveillance technology has not yet been installed.

The concerns of the workers, who all spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media, highlight a pandemic-related trend that has alarmed privacy and labor experts: As many workers have shifted to performing their duties at home, some companies are pushing for increasing levels of digital monitoring of their staff in an effort to recreate the oversight of the office at home.

This is what big tech has in store for all of us in the future. Since the pandemic began, more and more companies are discovering the potential cost saving benefits of remote work. Due to this explosion of remote work, companies will turn to big tech and A.I. to monitor their employees in their homes. The article continues:

The issue is not isolated to Teleperformance’s workers in Colombia. The company states on its website that it offers similar monitoring through its TP Cloud Campus product, the software it uses to enable staff to work remotely in more than 19 markets. An official Teleperformance promotional video for TP Cloud Campus from January 2021 describes how it uses “AI to monitor clean desk policy and fraud” among its remote workers by analyzing camera feeds. And in its latest earnings statement, released in June, Teleperformance said it has shifted 240,000 of its approximately 380,000 employees to working from home thanks to the TP Cloud Campus product.

At the end of 2020, workers at Teleperformance in Albania, including those working on the Apple U.K. account, complained to the country’s Information and Data Protection Commissioner about the company’s proposal to introduce video monitoring in their homes. The commissioner later ruled that Teleperformance could not use webcams to monitor Albanian workers in their homes.

“Surveillance at home has really been normalized in the context of the pandemic,” said Veena Dubal, a labor law professor at the University of California, Hastings. “Companies see a lot of benefit in putting in software to do all kinds of monitoring they would have otherwise expected their human managers to do, but the reality is that it’s much more intrusive than surveillance conducted by a boss.”

Teleperformance spokesman Mark Pfeiffer said that the company is “constantly looking for ways to enhance the Teleperformance Colombia experience for both our employees and our customers, with privacy and respect as key factors in everything we do.”

“We are committed to fair practices, equality, inclusion, diversity, non-discrimination, labor sustainability, ethics, and transparency,” Pfeiffer said, “and we will continue to do everything we can to uphold these values for both our teams and all our key stakeholders.”

The contract seeks consent for a wide range of possible scenarios to ensure that Teleperformance complies with data privacy laws as it continues to develop tools to optimize long-term work from home for employees and clients, he said.

The audacity of this statement from the Teleperformance spokesman is disturbing and a slap in the face to workers. We face an Orwellian future of A.I. monitored and tracked slave labor. Some companies have gone as far as redesigning toilets to be extremely uncomfortable so employees don’t spend more than a minute in the bathroom.

During the pandemic, Teleperformance, like many other companies, shifted the majority of its employees globally to working from home. At the start, the company faced international scrutiny from labor unions after photos were leaked to news outlets of some of its staff in the Philippines — the country with the highest number of Teleperformance workers — sleeping at work so they could be in the office to respond to Amazon Ring customers in U.S. time zones. At the time, some workers complained about the office conditions and said they wanted the convenience and safety of working at home. There are no signs that workers from Colombia slept at the office.

However, that convenience and safety appears to have come with a privacy infringing catch, said workers. In March, members of Teleperformance’s global workforce, including 95 percent of its 39,000 Colombian employees who were working remotely, were sent an eight-page addendum to their existing employment contracts that asked them to agree to new home surveillance rules, workers said. Workers said that management told them clients requested the additional monitoring to improve security and prevent any data breaches while they were working from home because of the pandemic.

The document asks workers to agree to having video cameras installed in their home or on their computers, pointing at their workspace, to record and monitor workers in real time. It also states that workers agree to Teleperformance using AI-powered video analysis tools that can identify objects around the workspace, including mobile phones, paper and other items that are restricted by Teleperformance’s security policies. They must also agree to sharing data and images related to any children they have under the age of 18 — who might get picked up by video and audio monitoring tools — and to sharing biometric data including fingerprints and photos. There is also a clause that requires workers to take polygraph tests if requested.

Pfeiffer, the Teleperformance spokesperson, said that cameras were used for spot checks of the company’s clean desk policy and occasionally to ensure compliance with data security processes and that no data is recorded from employees. He said that the AI-powered video analysis was currently being tested in just three of Teleperformance’s markets. He said that employees consented to sharing biometric data and that polygraphs are used in specific security studies with employees’ consent. The company acknowledged asking workers to consent to sharing data relating to minors, but said that it did not share this data outside of Teleperformance.

This is an insane level of surveillance and micro-management. Employees having to sleep at work, and have the privacy of their homes invaded and their children monitored and being subjected to random “cleanliness” checks and polygraphs is unacceptable. These companies are extremely private and have almost no accountability. There is already a major power and wealth imbalance between the employers and the workers and this takes abusing that power to a whole new level.

Some Teleperformance workers have become so concerned about the pressure to agree to sweeping surveillance that they have started to organize to improve their working conditions. On Monday they submitted a set of demands to their employer with the Utraclaro y TIC union, which typically organizes workers in the IT sector and has already created a union within the Colombian operations of call center giant Atento, a Teleperformance competitor. The demands include the right to freedom of assembly without fear of retaliation, less intrusive surveillance, overtime pay, 30-second breaks between calls, clearer disciplinary processes and covering the cost of equipment used to work from home, including a chair and desk, as well as a reliable internet connection.

“We want workers at Teleperformance to have the freedom to join a trade union without fear of losing their jobs,” said Yuli Higuera, president of the union, which has about 1,200 members in Colombia. So far, about 100 Teleperformance workers have joined the union, she said.

Unbelievably the company refers to itself a “people-centric” in another joke of PR speak, and a failure to address the real concerns of employees. It got to the point where workers have attempted to unionize to gain some collective bargaining rights.

Daily Alts reported2 on Amazon installing A.I. powered cameras in their delivery vans and the drivers have spoken up about the appalling working conditions Amazon employees are subjected to:

Ecommerce giant Amazon (NASDAQ: AMZN) has installed cameras with AI capabilities in delivery vehicles, according to CNBC. The company is using the cameras, at some of its delivery service partners (DSPs), to improve the safety of the drivers.

The cameras, dubbed Driveri, are manufactured by San Diego-based startup Netradyne. Each camera has four lenses that capture the driver, the road, and both sides of the vehicle. The device records the entire time the vehicle is on the delivery route.

“We are investing in safety across our operations and recently started rolling out industry-leading camera-based safety technology across our delivery fleet,” said Deborah Bass, an Amazon spokesperson, in a statement. “This technology will provide drivers real-time alerts to help them stay safe when they are on the road.”

However, Amazon’s delivery partners have often been in the news for the wrong reasons. BuzzFeed reported in August 2019 that a driver at Inpax Shipping Solutions, an Amazon DSP, was charged with reckless homicide after his three-ton van crashed into an 84-year-old grandmother.

Meanwhile, the AI software backing up the cameras can detect 16 different safety issues. These include distracted driving, speeding, ignoring a stop sign, hard braking, and not wearing a seat belt. An instructional video says the cameras can also issue an audio alert, for instance, telling the driver to “please slow down,” or “maintain a safe distance.”

Again, if a driver is yawning, the camera will tell him to pull over for at least 15 minutes. If the driver doesn’t obey that instruction, the DSP might get an alert. They could call the driver and asked him to stop.

The camera can also upload its footage to a “secure portal” in case it detects unsafe driving behavior. This footage is accessible by Amazon and the DSP.

The excuse is always “safety” or “work performance” but that is not an excuse for invasive biometric real time surveillance.

I interviewed Chris Smalls, an Amazon employee who was fired for attempting to unionize at Amazon:

He went into detail about the toxic work environment and racism at Amazon.

Ars Technica reports3 on the Teleperformance scandal and they claim Uber was one of the major big tech companies who specifically requested the use of invasive, real time home surveillance:

For years, employers have used surveillance to keep tabs on their employees on the job. Cameras have watched as workers moved cash in and out of registers, GPS has reported on the movements of employees driving company vehicles, and software has been monitoring people’s work email.

Now, with more work being done remotely, many of those same surveillance tools are entering people’s homes. A marketing company in Minnesota forced employees to install software that would record videos of employee’s screens and even cut their hours if they took a bathroom break that was too long. A New York e-commerce company told employees that they would have to install monitoring software on their personal computers that would log keystrokes and mouse movements—and they’d have to install an app on their phones that would track their movements throughout the workday.

Teleperformance employs over 380,000 people in 83 countries to provide call center services for a range of companies, including Amazon, Apple, and Uber. A company spokesperson told NBC  that it is “constantly looking for ways to enhance the Teleperformance Colombia experience for both our employees and our customers, with privacy and respect as key factors in everything we do.”

Amazon and Apple said that they did not ask Teleperformance for this extra monitoring, and an Apple spokesperson said the company forbids video monitoring of employees by suppliers. A recent Apple audit reportedly found Teleperformance in compliance with this requirement.

But Uber apparently requested the ability to monitor some workers. Uber said it wouldn’t observe the entire workforce, but the company did not specify which employees would be subject to the new policies. The ride sharing company asked for the monitoring of Teleperformance’s remote employees because call center staff have access to customers credit cards and trip details, an Uber spokesperson told NBC News.

Like many remote workers in the US, Colombians have had to make do with the space they have available to them. In many cases, that’s meant putting their work equipment in otherwise private spaces like their bedrooms. “The contract allows constant monitoring of what we are doing, but also our family,” one worker told NBC. “I think it’s really bad. We don’t work in an office. I work in my bedroom. I don’t want to have a camera in my bedroom.”

Another Teleperformance worker said the only room quiet enough to take customer calls is her bedroom, and at night, during her shifts, it’s also where her husband sleeps. “It’s a violation of my privacy rights, and the rights of my husband and mother-in-law who live with me,” she said.

Many companies (though not all) were forced to implement remote work a year and a half ago when the pandemic began, and since then, interest in employee monitoring software has boomed. There’s concern that, when the pandemic ends, digital surveillance will follow employees back to the office.

The tools and policies vary in their degrees of invasiveness. Some monitor which apps or websites are open and active, while others log keystrokes or take screenshots to allow managers to snoop on their employees’ desktops. Some will keep tabs on general activity, posting a pop-up window if the person appears to be inactive for too long. If the user doesn’t dismiss it in time, it’ll pause their time clock, effectively docking their pay if their bathroom break stretches too long. Other employers skip specialized apps entirely and ask their employees to stay on video chat all day long.

This is becoming a major issue for the future of worker rights and the power that big tech holds over the individual. How will they use the unprecedented access to real time home surveillance and biometric tracking?

We already know that companies like Cambridge Analytica have somewhere in the range of 5000-8000 unique data points on each and EVERY American voter. That is an insane amount of personal information for one private company to have. They go on to use that data for targeted advertisements, political manipulation and more. We are looking at a dystopian future were massive corporations rule the world and control every little thing you do each day. Is that the future you want for yourself and your children? We must stop this now, before it gets to the point where it’s impossible to do so.

1 https://www.nbcnews.com/tech/tech-news/big-tech-call-center-workers-face-pressure-accept-home-surveillance-n1276227

3 https://arstechnica.com/tech-policy/2021/08/uber-asked-contractor-to-allow-video-surveillance-in-employee-homes-bedrooms/

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