David Heinemeier Hansson

March 1, 2021

Remote-work surveillance software is vile

illustration of a surveillance manager.png

You could have hoped that as the pandemic wore on, the initial rush of companies to adopt employee-surveillance software would peter out. They'd realize that the biggest problem with working remotely is usually not that employees work too little, but that they work too much. No such luck.

Employee-surveillance software seems to be as popular as ever, and the pitch is getting increasingly bold. Gone are the euphemisms about how this is actually just about making sure everyone works better together. The mask is slipping, and now companies like RemoteDesk just come right out and say it: "The most advanced AI-based Desktop Monitoring Solution and employee monitoring software for work-from-home obedience" [emphasis and horror mine].

Obedience monitoring?? Are we talking about employees or prisoners here? But as you read on with the pitch, it's clear that this is no mere slip of the tongue, but indeed of the mask. This is who they are:

surveillance features from RemoteDesk.png

"Enforce Clean Desk", "Prohibited Devices in work station", "Facial Suspicion", "Eating And Drinking". These are restrictions and triggers you'd be appalled to read about from a prison camp, and now this is simply what amounts to a remote work environment in 2021? It's an overused phrase, but I still can't keep myself from muttering it repeatedly: WHAT FRESH HELL IS THIS??

We've spent much of the past decade comparing all sorts of scenarios to "something out of 1984". This isn't "something", this actually is! Except Winston at least had a small corner of his room where the panopticon couldn't reach. A corner for a brief reprieve, because at least in 1984, the panopticon had to be monitored by a human. True, you never knew when they were watching, but as long as you didn't stay off screen for too long, you were probably OK.

THIS IS WORSE! As RemoteDesk brags, this is powered by AI. All activity is being recorded. The algorithm will flag you for review for FACIAL SUSPICION. Again. What. The. Flying. Fuck!

Most employee-surveillance software isn't quite as blunt as RemoteDesk, but all of it is based on the same bankrupt ideology. That workers have sold their time for wages, and therefore their privacy and dignity has been bought in full. They are company property now. Occasionally misbehaving cogs that need constant supervision, lest they have a snack or a drink outside of allotted breaks, or perhaps go to be bathroom too frequently.

This is fundamentally inhumane. It's triply appalling that these indignities are being foisted upon workers squeezed by a pandemic and a crashing economy at the same time.

When I highlight the horrors of the employee-surveillance industry, I often hear "oh well, workers could just quit if they don't like it". As though most people hold a job merely as a hobby, or that ethical alternatives are plentiful, or that the market will surely naturally correct itself if only they would quit!

In other words, blaming the victims of employee-surveillance abuse for their predicament. It's your fault for taking it! Why won't you just take a stance by forgoing the money you need for rent or food?? Have some principles, dear workers!

Oh fuck off.

The reason we have laws and regulations protecting workers from abusive hours, terms, or environments is exactly because the holy market does not correct itself. At least not on any timescale relevant to the suffering of individual workers, and most of the time not at all.

Employee-surveillance software is employee-abuse software. Plain and simple. While you give up some of your privacy to work with others, you shouldn't have to give up all of it. Same too with the basic dignity of being able to flash a facial expression of discontent without being written up by the AI.

This has to end, and clearly it's not going to on its own. Far too many managers are addicted to the power, if not sadism, that employee-surveillance software tickles. What we need are laws and workplace regulations that severely limit, if not outright ban, the use of these tools in the vast majority of contexts.

Europe has already shown a willingness to deal with the new threats to workers posed by our digital world. France has already passed law under the right to disconnect and German companies like VW have banned weekend emails too. Those are good steps, but the threat posed by employee-surveillance software is clearly altogether more dire and urgent.

Employees are not prisoners. War upon them is not peace. Obedience is not productivity. Surveillance is not justified.

About David Heinemeier Hansson

Made Basecamp and HEY for the underdogs as co-owner and CTO of 37signals. Created Ruby on Rails. Wrote REWORK, It Doesn't Have to Be Crazy at Work, and REMOTE. Won at Le Mans as a racing driver. Fought the big tech monopolies as an antitrust advocate. Invested in Danish startups.