Internal surveillance camera

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With many companies working from home during the pandemic, managers and employers have found it difficult to divert dispersed teams away from the office.

Some have turned to technology to help, but they may be down a dangerous path using tools like artificial intelligence and algorithms to track employees and their work throughout the day, or even facial recognition that can make sure someone is sitting at their desk.

A recent report by the Institute for the Future of Work, a UK research and development group, states that algorithmic systems typically used to monitor the performance of warehouse workers or delivery drivers have pervaded more and more industries.

Andrew Pakes, deputy general secretary of the UK-based union Prospect, told CNBC that these “digital leash” technologies have been an upward trend for some time and that remote working with Covid-19 is accelerating this.

“This was a topic we picked up on before Covid, but rocket amplifiers have grown over the past year as companies turned to technology,” Pakes said.

“On the one hand, technology was really important in keeping us safe and connected at home, but there is another side and that is the concern we see with it.”

Prospect has published some research on employee attitudes towards these technologies. The majority of respondents in a survey said they were uncomfortable with monitoring cameras or keystrokes.

This technology is attracting increasing attention from critics. Microsoft faced a backlash in Microsoft 365 against the “Productivity Score” that allowed managers to track an employee’s performance. Microsoft has since resorted to the features of the product and minimized the data collected from individuals.

PwC was criticized last year for developing a facial recognition tool for financial companies that monitors an employee and ensures that they are at their desks when they are supposed to be. A PwC spokesman told CNBC that the tool was a “conceptual prototype”.

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But that type of game hasn’t stopped others from tinkering with the technology. Fujitsu has developed an AI tool that can be used to determine how much someone is focused on an online meeting or course by analyzing the muscle movements in the face.

As more technologies like this emerge, employers need to be careful what they use.


Brian Honan, a cybersecurity advisor and former Europol advisor, said the introduction of AI-powered work tracking tools like facial recognition or keystroke monitoring poses a number of risks for businesses.

“Businesses have a duty of care to protect their business and they have a legitimate interest in making sure their business interests are considered, but they need to be weighed against individual rights in the workplace,” Honan said.

He suspects that many tools like keystroke monitoring or programs that take screenshots of a person’s desktop could be illegal under the EU’s extensive GDPR regulations. “If you think about all of the information these tools might gather while you work,” he said.

Honan added that the power of these tools is heavily weighted towards the employer and possibly extends too far into an employee’s personal space.

He said the case of camera surveillance with a person sitting at their desk can be particularly problematic in a work-from-home scenario. The camera could take pictures of the employee’s family or roommates, he said, and now their privacy has been violated.

Aside from the regulatory risks, he added, the use of these technologies does little to foster a positive culture in the workplace.

“Without exception, you tell your employees,” I don’t trust you to do your job for what I pay you to do, “he said.


Pakes said GDPR provides employers with a good framework when considering technologies to manage workers. However, in the age of hybrid and remote working, stricter rules specific to the workplace are required.

Prospect advocates a “right to segregation” law in the UK that will lay down a clear line as to when communication between an employee and his boss ends. Pakes said such regulations are necessary to protect workers from being overreach by employers through technology. The right to separate laws was passed in France and Ireland.

Regardless, the EU will have stricter rules on artificial intelligence that will restrict the use of AI in various industries. Any employer who deals with facial recognition must be wary of new obligations.

“Most of the labor laws in Europe over the last century were designed with physical harm and risk, health and safety in mind. They were not designed for this digital age of AI and for decisions about how to collect data in clouds or black boxes. We argue very strongly that data is the new health and safety, “said Pakes.

“We need to update our labor laws to make them fit for the way we use AI.”