Is there a real ‘Big Brother’?

Arlene Zhang

How a simple app can allow your valuable, private information to become very public and damaging

It is now the year 2020 but, in 1948, British author George Orwell, a pen name for Eric Arthur Blair, published a futuristic book called 1984, simply reversing the last two digits, and predicting a nation in which everyone was monitored 24 hours a day using video through an obligatory-owned television set by a governing figure known as “Big Brother” and his acolytes in order to control their behaviour.

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Now things have moved further on beyond Orwell’s “Orwellian” imagination.

Closed-circuit television using video cameras to transmit a signal to a specific place is now commonplace 72 years on.

It is mostly used for surveillance in areas that may need monitoring such as banks, stores, and other areas where security is needed. Video surveillance has generated much debate about balancing its use with an individuals’ right to privacy.

There were about 350 million surveillance cameras worldwide as of 2016 with about 65 percent of these cameras installed in Asia. The deployment of this technology has facilitated a significant growth in state surveillance, a substantial rise in the methods of advanced social monitoring and control and a host of crime-prevention measures.

Because of the Coronavirus pandemic, people have started being forced to use the widely-used video-conferencing service Zoom as a work-from-home tool.

It is equipped with numerous settings even many of its longtime users may not know about. For example, the “attendee-attention tracking” feature allows the hosts of conference calls – perhaps your boss – to monitor participants’ computers. So, if you do not have Zoom Desktop Client or Mobile App in focus for more than 30 seconds, your boss can see an indicator in the participant panel of the meeting.

A boy reads a book next to a pile of George Orwell’s dystopian novel, ‘1984’. AFP

Zoom Chief Executive Officer Eric Yuan last week apologised to users, saying the company had fallen short of the community’s privacy and security expectations and was taking steps to fix the issues.

Nonetheless, privacy has a value and the company’s shares have plummeted. It is also being sued,

However, this kind of surveillance is just one of many.

What tools can they use to monitor you?

Technically, these tools are all developed using the following means.

Time tracking. These Monitor work hours, lateness, early leaving, coffee breaks or smoke breaks and other distractions from work duties.

Keystroke logging. This records all the keys pressed on the keyboard.

Computer screen recording. This permits seeing all employee computer screen activity at any given period of time.

Network traffic monitoring. This records, filters and profiles log-files of network traffic for example in firewall systems and intrusion detection and prevention systems.

Natural language processing (NLP). It’s practically impossible for managers to listen to every single conversation or read every chat record from employees. That’s where big data analytics engines can help, and NLP works well here.


PCMag published a review of this type of surveillance tools in 2019. Of the 10 employee-monitoring tools listed, seven offer keystroke logging and nine allow the employer to take screenshots of an employee’s computer screen.

Keystroke logging is a particularly invasive type of corporate monitoring software designed to keep tabs on employees’ actions.

It could be a software that runs in the background of a computer system and literally records every single key you type and every mouse click you make. In other words, it can help your boss to record your emails, passwords, any personal chats or private social media account accessed from your work desk.

Once an incognito software is installed on your computer, especially when it could be hidden in the Running Processes list with disguised names, the most powerful employee monitoring tools can act as an all-seeing eye. Even though these tools can offer almost omniscient surveillance, not all companies go that far, it depends on your company’s goal of monitoring.

Why do they monitor? There are some major reasons drive them to do it.

  1. Compliance and contractual obligations

Laws and regulations, guidelines, codes of ethics, confidentiality requirements or contractual obligations might require a company to monitor its employees’ activity. For example, in some countries, banks and financial services companies need strict monitoring regarding data theft or insider trading.

  1. Productivity and quality

Check if employees are being slack and/or adhering to quality standards. For instance, contact centres or operations in the hospitality and retail industries are prime examples. Support agents perform far better when they know that their performance is being closely monitored.

For productivity, these also may include:

Assessing manpower requirements and allocating work

More accurate billing

Estimating profitability

  1. Internal and external information security

In the context of IT security, intrusion detection and intrusion response systems are implemented. Although intrusion detection is typically aimed at threats from external cyberattack, their use can prevent information theft from employees as well.

  1. Misuse of company resources

Employees may misuse company resources such as software or equipment for personal purposes. For example, an employee could use company computing resources for working on bitcoin mining or using Facebook for leisure.

  1. Human resource analytics

Based on the employee monitoring data, a company could do human resource analytics to predict who might be considering a job switch, which work activities lead to great productivity, what type of communication channels lead to greater team collaboration and so on.

Is it right whether your boss monitors you and to what extent should they be allowed to?

It really depends on where the company is registered, where you are from. It is important because the answers may require a company to provide prior notice to you and get your consent.

The European Union General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and applicable member-states’ privacy laws offer significantly more enhanced protections to employees than granted under most other countries. The essence is: “Everyone has the right to the protection of personal data concerning themselves. Such data must be processed fairly, for specific purposes and on the basis of the consent of the person concerned.”

Compared with other EU member states, Finnish privacy legislation is stricter and employees enjoy a higher level of privacy protection. The employer is only allowed to process personal data that is directly necessary for the employment relationship. No exceptions can be made to this strict necessity requirement, even with the employee’s consent. But there are still many exceptions allowing data to be collected without the consent of employees. For example, regarding anti-money laundering and market abuse, or in cases such as breaches of the company’s code of conduct or reports on employee’s suspicions on harassment at the work place.

In the US, although the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA) generally prohibits monitoring electronic communications, there are also two exceptions that might apply. The “business purpose exception” allows employers to monitor employees’ electronic communications if the employer has a “legitimate business purpose” for the monitoring. It could have a very broad interpretation.

Employers also may monitor workplace communications if they have obtained their employees’ consent. Companies often do this simply by requiring employees to acknowledge and accept their monitoring practices at the time of onboarding and before being able to log onto company devices or networks and systems.

So, in the US it’s considerably easy for companies to find excuses to monitor employee. Well this phenomenon has to be looked at from several different perspectives, the work culture, the economics, the employment rate and the privacy expectation etc.

Freedom implies the possibility of choice. The choice not to give consent to be monitored, thus it should not lead to negative consequences, including the risk of losing one’s job. But as we may all have experienced we are more or less consciously abandoning our right to privacy in the face of this risk.

Therefore, whether the consent of the individual should be qualified as freely given in the workplace context is significantly in doubt.

Like many other new technologies, supervision potentially causes a shift in the informational balance at the work place and, as a consequence, the balance of power shifts in favour of the employer.

In recent years,  personal data protection has been paid more and more attention around the world, data protection regulation in the workplace aims at re-establishing an informational balance between employer and employee.

Employees often opt to use their personal phones or computers to access work emails, corporate social media networks and other information, blurring the line between what is private and what should be accessible to employers.

So, when you are working with a company-issued computer, or using your own devices via the company’s network in the office or via a VPN at home, be careful of the “Big Brother” That applies especially now if you work in an industry such as finance or banking.


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