Eye-tracking webcams, keystroke recorders, screen captures of visited sites. With the rise in remote work, employee monitoring software has become the norm in the U.S.. But in Europe, things are more complicated.
PARIS — Is there a spy in your computer? If you work in the U.S., chances are the answer is 'yes.' According to several studies conducted by Gartner and Digital.com, around six out of 10 employers use software to monitor their remote workers. The Americans have even come up with a name for this kind of tool: "bossware".
As the Covid pandemic forced millions of people to work from home almost overnight in 2020, many employers were "buying panic" monitoring equipment, Bloomberg reported at the time. The lockdowns have passed, but remote working has not. Nor has surveillance software.
Teramind, Hubstaff, DeskTime, VeriClock, CleverControl... The market offers a plethora of tools, and there isn't a corner of a business computer that doesn't fall under the radar of these monitoring systems. Yet, as explained by Eric Delisle, head of the legal department at the French CNIL’s (National Digital Freedom Commission), there is a different approach on either side of the Atlantic. "In the United States, anything goes — it's the Wild West!"
A boom worrying the White House
"Some companies are masters of this practice. They record their employees' screens, either permanently or by taking regular screenshots, every five minutes, for example. There are also smart technologies for webcams, which analyze your gaze and check whether you're doing something else," says the specialist. "It's the same with sound recordings, to see if you're making calls to friends!"
A "very popular" application? Keystroke recording. Without even looking at your screen, the employer can see if you're making online requests for your next vacation. And if you're not moving your mouse often enough because you took too long a break? The software can see that too. Unless, like thousands of employees, you've cobbled together a system for automatically faking mouse movements…
But even in the land of Uncle Sam, business freedom has its limits. At the beginning of May, the White House expressed concern about the boom in remote monitoring tools, and announced that it would be studying companies' use of these technologies, which it said could lead to "serious risks for workers".
The principle of proportionality
Where does France stand? Is software made in the USA also installed on French machines? Whether employees work remotely or on-site, French employers also have the power to monitor the proper execution of the tasks they entrust to their employees.
But this power is regulated by a "principle of proportionality", says Eric Delisle. "It's normal to make sure the job is done properly. But the end doesn't justify the means. You don't swat a fly with a tank!" says the legal specialist.
This principle, contained in Article L. 1121-1 of the French Labor Code and the EU's General Data Protection Regulation, rules out constant surveillance of employees, "except in justified exceptional cases".
"So you can't constantly monitor someone through their webcam or microphone," says Eric Delisle. "Constant screen sharing and the use of keyloggers [software that records keystrokes] are also considered too intrusive," he says.
Where four out of 10 American employees say they don't know what data their company collects on them, or how it is used (Gartner study), French employees need to be informed in advance of any system for monitoring their activities. "We need to be transparent, and not trick individuals or take them by surprise, for example with software that takes screenshots without warning," explains Delisle.
While there have been a few exceptions, the independent authority says it has not seen an explosion in surveillance resources since Covid. "I think we've been able to sort out a lot of things upstream. Companies — especially large ones — asked us a lot of questions when the confinements came about," says Delisle, who also sees a "good indicator" of this trend in the number of complaints received by the CNIL. "We receive around 15,000 complaints a year, 10% of which relate to workplace surveillance. This number has remained stable."
The remote working situation remains a win-win situation for workers and employers. Studies show that teleworking increases employee productivity, but not if they feel spied on. On the contrary, according to several studies, this intensive surveillance is associated with increased stress, lower job satisfaction and a greater desire to quit.
— Leïla Marchand/ Les Echos
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