Skip to content

The Rise of Remote Corporate Surveillance: A Threat to Privacy and Autonomy

In a world where technology is advancing faster than our laws and moral codes can keep up, the issue of remote corporate surveillance has become a growing concern.

Is employer spying the new normal?

In a world where technology is advancing faster than our laws and moral codes can keep up, the issue of remote corporate surveillance has become a growing concern. The recent Netherlands-based court case against Chetu, a Florida company, sheds light on the devastating effects of remote work webcam surveillance.

In the court case, a Chetu employee was asked to enable screen sharing and webcam access for an entire working day while attending a training program. When the employee refused, they faced immediate termination. This may have been a legitimate action in Florida, where workers and companies have few employment rights and protections, but the case highlights the stark contrast with employment laws in other parts of the world.

According to court documents, the employee stated: "I don't feel comfortable being monitored for 9 hours a day by a camera. This is an invasion of my privacy and makes me feel really uncomfortable. That's the reason why my camera isn't on. You can already monitor all activities on my laptop and I am sharing my screen."

The following day, Chetu notified the worker of their contract's termination via email, claiming insubordination and refusal to work. However, the court ruled in the worker's favor, stating that "camera surveillance during nine hours a day is disproportionate and not allowed in the Netherlands. In addition, he was already checked for output via software installed on his laptop." The company was ordered to pay the worker approximately $50,000 in damages and compensation, including back pay, transition assistance, and fees incurred.

The fact that Chetu did not appear at the hearing and had no defense against the case raises questions about the company's practices and ethics. Furthermore, the company's subsequent dissolution of its Dutch branch and deregistration from the country's trade register only adds to the suspicion of guilt.

The Rise of Remote Work and the Battle for Autonomy

The rise of remote work has been a double-edged sword for employees. On one hand, it offers flexibility, autonomy, and the ability to work from anywhere. On the other hand, it also opens the door for employers to monitor and control their employees in ways never before possible. The Chetu case is just one example of the negative consequences of remote corporate surveillance.

In Canada, the recent push by the federal government to end remote work and force public servants back to the office has sparked controversy and opposition from unions. The Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC), the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada (PIPSC), and the Canadian Association of Professional Employees (CAPE) have publicly opposed the government's action, arguing that many workers, particularly those hired during the pandemic, do not even have offices, and the rushed return-to-work process has left them struggling with child care arrangements. The lack of union input and ongoing bargaining over remote work, wages, and other key issues have only added to the opposition.

The battle over remote work in the public sector is a harbinger of things to come. As the desire for remote work grows among employees, employers are faced with a dilemma. Some welcome the opportunity to save on overhead costs, while others fear the growth of worker autonomy and the potential for "time theft."

The Anti-Corporate Pushback

The recent pushback against remote work by companies such as Tesla and Netflix highlights the anti-corporate sentiment that is growing among employees and the public. Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla, and Reed Hastings, CEO of Netflix, have both publicly criticized the continuation of work-from-home arrangements. However, their stance on remote work is hypocritical, as they themselves do not practice what they preach.

The rise of remote corporate surveillance represents a threat to privacy and autonomy for workers everywhere. The Chetu case in the Netherlands serves as a warning for the dangers of corporate overreach and the need for strong employment laws to protect workers' rights. As the trend of remote work continues to grow, it is becoming increasingly important for workers to push back against companies that attempt to undermine their autonomy and privacy.

It's also important to note that the decisions made by companies like Tesla and Netflix, and the actions of governments like Canada's, are reflective of the larger problem of the global elite's inability to properly manage their power. The anti-corporate pushback against remote work is a sign of the public's growing discontent with the status quo and their desire for greater autonomy and privacy in their work.

As technology continues to advance, employers are increasingly relying on various forms of monitoring software to track employee productivity. These tools range from counting keystrokes and tracking internet usage to reviewing email communications and monitoring employee movements. However, as employers become more reliant on this technology, governmental bodies are cracking down on their use, citing concerns over workers' rights.

Government Takes a Stand: Protecting Workers' Rights

Jennifer Abruzzo, General Counsel of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), recently stated her intent to enforce existing laws and protect workers from heightened monitoring. All employees, regardless of union status, have the right to discuss employment conditions, self-organize, form or join a union, collectively bargain, and engage in other protected activities. Abruzzo expressed her concern that some monitoring techniques could infringe on these rights.

Some older forms of monitoring, such as photographing or videoing employees engaged in protected activities or using security cameras or social media accounts to discover protected activity, are already illegal. Newer forms of monitoring, such as excessive GPS tracking, recording worker conversations, and monitoring beyond work hours and locations, are now also under scrutiny.

The NLRB has outlined a framework for determining whether an employer's monitoring system violates worker rights. An employer will have violated the law if their surveillance practices tend to interfere with protected activity. However, if the employer can establish that the monitoring is narrowly tailored to meet a legitimate business need and cannot be achieved through less intrusive means, the business need may outweigh the employee's rights, provided that the employer discloses the use of technology, its reasons for monitoring, and how it uses the information.

In addition to the NLRB, several states, including New York, Connecticut, and Delaware, have proposed or enacted laws requiring employers to provide written notice to employees when using monitoring technologies and impose penalties for noncompliance. California is also working to pass the Workplace Technology Accountability Act, which would impose stringent requirements on employers, including the requirement to explain why and how they collect data and provide workers with the opportunity to correct incorrect data.

Given these legal developments, employers should consider the following recommendations: avoid monitoring during break times and non-work areas, avoid imposing an algorithmic pace that could prevent workers from taking breaks, avoid monitoring employees outside of work, ensure monitoring is narrowly tailored to a legitimate business need, and comply with wiretapping and similar laws by disclosing the use of monitoring technology.