The rise of the surveillance workplace


Increasing numbers of American businesses are using NSA-type surveillance technology to monitor employee behavior on a minute-by-minute basis.  The data gathered by these monitors will be used to create algorithms for judging in advance which employees will be productive and which won’t.

One striking example of this technology is the Hitachi Business Microscope, a device that resembles an employee name tag.  An HBM can generate data on how an employee spent their day, when they stood up and sat down, when they nodded their heads, waved their arms, pointed their fingers or stretched, who they talked to and in what turn of voice, when they went to the bathroom or coffee machine and how long they spent doing it.

Hitachi says this data can be used to maximize “employee happiness.”  I can think of less benign potential uses.

The HBM is part of a new industry of manufacturers and consultants that purport to use surveillance technology to improve employee productivity.

I question how much improvement will actually take place.  Data is only useful to those who know how to interpret it correctly.  Having more data than you can comprehend is counter-productive.

What the new surveillance technology will do is to increase managerial control, which most managers fail to realize is an entirely different thing.

Developments like this make me glad I’m 77 years old and retired.   The great thing about being a newspaper reporter during the 40 years I worked in journalism was that you were free to do your job as you saw fit, and were judged by results.

I remember talking to some machinists for Eastman Kodak Co. in the late 1970s, who marveled that I in my job as a newspaper reporter was not only free to go to the bathroom without asking permission, but also to get up at will and go to the vending machine for cup of coffee.

Later on I was thankful not to be a telephone operator, telemarketer and customer service representative, who was monitored on whether he or she followed scripts and completed calls within an allotted time, or a data processor, whose work was measured keystroke by keystroke.

But the new technology takes workplace surveillance to a whole new level.   It is like the difference between Tsarist Russia and Soviet Russia.


Here are links to articles by advocates of the new technology.

Here are links to articles by critics.

I agree with the critics.

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9 Responses to “The rise of the surveillance workplace”

  1. whungerford Says:

    Do employees have any privacy rights on the job? Should they have? New technology or not, type A managers have been potentially intrusive all along — think of Uncle Scrooge.


    • philebersole Says:

      You have once again asked provocative questions without attempting answers of your own. Here are my attempts to answer.

      The rights of employees are defined by law and sometimes by union contracts and court decisions.

      Until there were workers’ compensation laws, an employee had no right to compensation for being maimed or crippled on the job.

      Until there were civil rights laws, an employee had no recourse being being denied equal pay or equal opportunity on the basis of race.

      Until there were laws against sexual harassment, an employee had no protection against a sexually abusive employer.

      I am in favor of laws and union contracts (the latter will be more effective than the former) that limit the power of employers to invade employee privacy. I’m not an expert on privacy law and can’t be more specific than that.

      I recommend employers who want to know more about employees try the method of treating them with courtesy and respect, and asking their opinions under conditions in which they need not fear retaliation.

      Ebenezer Scrooge in the story watched Bob Cratchit in the office all day long, but he didn’t really come to understand him until he began to treat him as a fellow human being, and not as a unit of production.


  2. Notes To Ponder Says:



  3. whungerford Says:

    Current laws are few and limited in scope. It is unlikely that a nation that affords corporations the same rights as people will soon pass laws to better protect worker privacy. Surveillance may prove ineffective limiting its use. In good times when employees can leave a bad job for a better one, turnover might limit invasion of privacy.


    • philebersole Says:

      One definition of “unlikely” is “possible but very, very difficult.”

      Unless progressives attempt the difficult, they will not make progress.


      • whungerford Says:

        I am reminded that year’s ago we believed that the First Amendment guaranteed the right to assemble and speak in a public place, a shopping mall for example. Even though laws supporting this right were on the books and perhaps still are, except possibly in CA and NJ, this right is gone.

        According to Gene Policinski (, “in 1978, in Hudgens v. NLRB, the Supreme Court effectively discarded its earlier rulings and said that unless property owners intended to make malls the equivalent of a public space, the First Amendment did not guarantee free speech rights in private shopping centers.”

        Progress on workplace privacy may be possible, but it will certainly be very difficult.


      • philebersole Says:

        Your latest comment helps me to understand you better. We’re in agreement, then, that the defense of basic rights is a difficult but worthwhile struggle, and eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.


  4. Bill Says:

    I am becoming less and less an optimist. I fear for the country and try to remind myself that there were other times recently that caused me to doubt the longevity of the nation I love.


  5. Fred (Au Natural) Says:

    I worked for years doing tech support for Verizon FIOS and the Frontier. By the time I left, the job had evolved from do whatever it takes to fix the problem to little more than read the scripts,, check the boxes and upsell the customer, I’m glad I out of that.


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