The Wretched Trend of Employee-Monitoring Spyware

Keystrokes and mouse-jiggles aren’t “productivity”

Clive Thompson


“Blogging” by Anonymous Account (CC 2.0 license, unmodified)

I’ve written a bunch lately about how employee monitoring technology makes workers utterly miserable.

You’ve got truckers working in rolling panopticons — the vehicles bristling with sensors that spy on everything up to the driver’s head-pose, and report it to their employee. You’ve got gig employees jerked around by algorithms. And you’ve got companies asking customers to rate employees, then using those erratic, meaningless ratings to ding workers.

Now the New York Times has an excellent report on a nauseating and growing trend: Companies using spyware to check mouse-clicks and keyboard-movement so they can judge a “worker productivity score”.

Stop clicking on your keyboard? Stop using your mouse, or posting in the online forums?

You’re slacking!

Or as Jodi Kantor and the team that produced that Times piece put it: “Since the dawn of modern offices, workers have orchestrated their actions by watching the clock. Now, more and more, the clock is watching them.”

It’s loathsome, of course. But it’s loathsome in a way that’s quite revealing about the collision of technology and labor these days.

It draws a bead on the big problem in today’s technologized management. Bosses are obsessed with what they can measure — but not what actually matters.

by Timisu on Pixabay (license)

“Productivity” can’t be measured by keystrokes

After all, what exactly is work? Or more importantly, what is productive and useful work? How well can you measure when someone is being productive and useful?

Well, consider the case of social workers, whose job it is to help folks struggling with all manner of problems — addiction, poverty, unaffordable (or unavailable) housing. A huge amount of that involves talking and listening to your clients, and slowly piecing together how they might be helped. A lot of that work is face-to-face.



Clive Thompson

I write 2X a week on tech, science, culture — and how those collide. Writer at NYT mag/Wired; author, “Coders”.