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4th Feb 2023

Boom in software spying on remote workers, MEPs hear

  • Computer-monitoring software is helping firms track remote-working employees (Photo: Tirza van Dijk)
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Companies are increasingly using software to spy on employees working remotely, Polish computer forensics analyst Maciej Broniarz told MEPs on Monday (23 January).

"The market for highly intrusive spyware is snowballing," Broniarz warned.

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Remote monitoring tools, also known as Bossware, has the potential to breach privacy of unsuspecting employees, he said. He said the issue of such software "may lead to comparable breaches in privacy that are very similar to those for example, Pegasus."

Pegasus was developed by the Israeli NOS group and sold to some governments, including in Europe, to fight terrorism or other serious crimes.

Bu it has also been used against opposition politicians in Poland, journalists in Hungary, and some MEPs.

Meanwhile, Bossware is allowing firms to digitally-track people — by taking screenshots or logging keystrokes without letting employees know.

One study found that the global demand for employee-monitoring software increased by 58 percent March 2020 to September 2022, compared to 2019.

A more recent survey in the US from last September said some 60 percent of companies with employees who work remotely are using monitoring software to track employee activity and productivity.

Another, by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an NGO, says it is important to understand how remote monitoring effects workers' health, safety, livelihood, and collective bargaining rights. It also warned that built-in artificial intelligence biases of remote-monitoring poses additional problems when it comes to gauging productivity.

But issues over privacy and data protection rights remain, said Broniarz.

"It is mainly due to the lack of general supervision and discussion on that issue," he said, noting that internal policies of some companies tend to skip EU data protection rules.

One such case last year led a Dutch court to rule that Chetu, a Florida-based firm, had violated the human rights of a Dutch telemarketer. The Dutch remote employee had circumvented Chetu's webcam worker surveillance by switching it off. They then fired him for it.

The Dutch court, however, citing European Convention of Human Rights, said "video surveillance of an employee in the workplace, be it covert or not, must be considered as a considerable intrusion into the employee's private life."

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