Jul 7, 2020 - Economy

The coronavirus is ushering in a new era of surveillance at work

Illustration of a giant camera looking at a tiny worker.

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

As companies continue to prepare for the return of their employees to the workplace, they're weighing new types of surveillance in the name of safety.

Why it matters: Just as the coronavirus pandemic has acted as an accelerant for the adoption of remote work, it has also normalized increased surveillance and data collection. In the post-pandemic workplace, our bosses will know a lot more about us than they used to.

What's happening: "We're in this new era of biodata collection," says Amy Webb of the Future Today Institute.

A majority of employers, 51%, have begun or are planning to begin collecting temperature data on employees, according to survey data from Gartner provided to Axios.

  • 60% are collecting self-reported data from employees on symptoms, and another 25% are asking employees to report who they've been in contact with. And 5% of firms say they're going as far as collecting workers' medical histories.
  • "It is all a form of surveillance," says Brian Kropp, head of Gartner's human resources practice.
  • "I think most of it doesn’t have nefarious intent," Webb says. "But, that being said, we don’t have clarity on how these data might be accessed by an insurer, for example. There isn't enough regulation or transparency around where data are being stored."

Another form of pandemic-era surveillance that's gaining popularity is the use of temperature-reading infrared cameras to watch over workers and customers.

  • "When the pandemic took hold, I started seeing more and more companies like Amazon using this technology to help identify sick people in their warehouses. Thermal imaging cameras are beginning to appear in Subway restaurants. Carnival Cruise Lines, whose ships became hot spots for the virus’s spread, said all passengers and crew would be screened when it began sailing again," the New York Times' Jonah Kessel writes.
  • These cameras are not always accurate and raise a whole host of privacy concerns.

And even those who work from home may have to deal with a rise in surveillance.

  • Since the start of the pandemic, a slew of companies have asked their newly remote employees to install software that tracks their mouse movements or keystrokes — or which webpages they visit as a way — to ensure they're being productive, NPR reports.

What to watch: Past studies have shown us that many workers aren't willing to put up with employer data collection. In a 2019 Gartner survey, 23% of workers said it was unacceptable for employers to ask for medical data.

  • But now, the desire to stay safe at work could quickly change those opinions and clear the lane for robust workplace surveillance.

Go deeper: When going back to work isn't safe

Go deeper