If you are worried that the era of home working is about to become the reality of your worst dystopian nightmares, then you have good reason.
For many, one of the silver linings of lockdown was the shift to home working – a chance to avoid the crushing commute, supermarket meal deals and an overbearing boss breathing down your neck.
However, as the Covid crisis continues more and more employers are cancelling plans for a future return to the office.
Unfortunately, some of them are deploying increasing levels of surveillance in an Orwellian attempt to recreate the oversight of an office in the privacy of your home.
Yes, remote surveillance, (aka in-house webcam security), is without a doubt the stuff that turned George Orwell’s bad dreams into the novel – 1984.
Thousands of staff are now being monitored by webcams which check whether they are eating, looking at their phones or leaving their desks while working from home.
The webcam technology has been developed by Teleperformance – a French omnichannel company employing over 350,000 people in 34 countries.
They also have dozens of major UK companies and government departments among their clients.
Teleperformance has recently informed their staff that they will be having specialist webcams fitted in order to check for any home-working infractions.
Essentially that means their home workers will have an AI-enabled webcam added to their computers.
The artificial intelligence system will recognise their faces, tag their locations and scan for any “breaches” of company rules at random points during their shifts.
These include an “unknown person” detected at the desk via the facial recognition software, “missing from desk”, “detecting an idle user” and “unauthorised mobile phone usage”.
Staff have also been told that eating while on shift is not permitted.
If an infraction is detected, then a still photo will be sent to a manager.
If a worker needs to leave their desk, for example to have a drink, they will have to click “break mode” in an app to explain why – for example, “getting water” – to avoid being reported for a breach.
In their training video, “Anna”, a desk-sitting avatar complete with an artificial voice, introduces the TP Observer as follows:
“This is risk-mitigation tool that monitors and tracks real time employee behaviour, and detects any violations to pre-set business rules.
If the system detects no keyboard stroke and mouse click, it will show you as idle for that particular duration, and it will be reported to your supervisor. So please avoid hampering your productivity.
Any breach detected by the AI triggers a real-time alert to the supervisor for further actions.
Strong lights should be used for night shifts, so the camera can see properly.”
Whilst RIP has seen the training video we are unable to publish it. Instead, here’s Teleperformance’s sales video.
The in house training video includes a series of avatar-staff asking questions, including one who asks whether the system is “a breach of my privacy at home”.
The manager tells him the scanning is needed to “help us with risk mitigation and data security, which is required by most of our customers”.
Another digital employee asks if they will get into trouble if children or other family members approach their home workplace.
Anna replies,“not as long as the people in the background are not directly looking into the screen, or very close to it”. She goes on to say, “staff should sit with a wall behind them to avoid such breaches”.
Silkie Carlo, director of the anti-surveillance charity Big Brother Watch, says this trend is a natural progression of surveillance in the workplace.
“Now that is morphing into home surveillance it takes on a new shape and is more worrying, because some employers aren’t realising that yes, some employees are working from home, but the home still remains a private space.
It’s important for people’s sense of autonomy and dignity, and their mental health, that the home remains a private space and we don’t go down the route of this really invasive constant monitoring of people’s homes.”
Howard Beckett, assistant general secretary of Unite, said the union would “fight legally and industrially to prevent any push to normalise home surveillance”.
Andy McDonald, the shadow employment rights minister, said that when companies were relying on home-working staff to keep them going, it was wrong to impose “invasive surveillance that will erode their rights to privacy and create a climate of fear and mistrust”.
After Teleperformance were asked about UK staff concerns, a senior manager contacted employees to explain that they would not be randomly monitored, adding that it was “extremely disappointing” the media had been alerted and that this was considered gross misconduct.
A spokesperson for Teleperformance said the company wanted to discuss any concerns with workers and that the webcam system was intended “to respond to the overwhelming concerns of isolation, lack of team engagement and support, not seeing anyone from one day to the next, raised by those who are at home”.
In Britain Teleperformance’s clients include the health and education departments of the UK government, NHS Digital, the Student Loans Company, the RAF and the Royal Navy.
The companies it works for include Vodafone, eBay, Aviva, Volkswagen and the Guardian newspaper.
FFS! The next thing they’ll want to know is how many people you’ve met without your clothes on.
Yes indeed, a metre in the bed is their next invasion of privacy.
Thanks for reading.
To end here’s Samba Pa Ti – now dance with me… to the end of life.